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April 4, 2024

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the USGS EESC Bird Banding Lab is highlighting 10 prominent female banders in the North American Bird Banding Program’s History. 

The role of women in ornithology and conservation has always been a powerful one. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women such as Harriet Hemenway, Minna Hall, Mabel Osgood Write, Harriett Mann Miller and Florence Merriam Bailey used their status (and love of birds) to promote the passage of laws to protect birds and discourage the use of birds and feathers in the hat fashions of the time. Their early activism led to a movement of young women more interested in observing and appreciating birds alive and in their natural surroundings than adorning hats. This change of attitude eventually helped to establish the Lacey Act of 1900, which regulated wildlife trade across international borders, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which protected all migratory bird species in the United States. These early women ornithologists founded local Audubon chapters, wrote and illustrated field guides, and were avid proponents of studies in the field, where the ‘specimen’ remained alive and free. Florence Merriam Bailey’s publication, “Birds Through an Opera-Glass,”  was one of the first bird field guides and she is now considered the founder of birdwatching for scientific study as well as an enjoyable past time for all.  

At a time when men were at the forefront of science, these women played a vital role in furthering avian science and conservation. Rosalie Edge, appalled by mass slaughter of migrating hawks at Blue Mountain Ridge, created the first refuge for birds of prey. Hildegarde Howard looked at bird specimens though a different lens and merged the studies of paleontology and ornithology to investigate bird evolution. Althea Sherman extensively studied and reported on the life cycle of chimney swifts, mentoring others in such methods, including Margaret Morse Nice (noted below). Early women scientists in the field of ornithology published numerous journal articles on their findings, became elective members and fellows within the American Ornithologists Union, and paved the way for the use of bird banding as a scientific tool in the study and conservation of birds. In fact, without them and without the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the Bird Banding Lab may not exist. These women mentored, inspired, and opened doors for other scientists of all ages and all genders and surely gave rise to the 10 female bird banders we highlight below.  


A black-and-white photo of a woman with hat lying flat in grass to study nest of baby field sparrows
Margaret Morse Nice, American ornithologist, lying flat in grass to study nest of baby field sparrows.
Margaret Morse Nice (1883-1974) 

Have you stopped to watch a robin hop and pull a worm from the ground? A vulture soar? Or a mockingbird sing a complex melody?   

Margaret Morse Nice did, pioneering a new form of ornithology with her research. In the early 1900s, while the male ornithologists were focused on collecting and describing specimens, Nice observed them. To ensure behaviors were attributed to the correct individual, Nice utilized bird banding.

Fascinated with the Song Sparrow, she spent her lifetime observing them. Nice published a set of 3 monographs containing several hundred pages on the behavior and life history of the Song Sparrow making this small brown bird one of the most studied bird species of the time. Throughout her career, Nice wrote 250 research articles, not just on bird behavior but also child psychology. She reviewed over 3,000 journal articles during her 40 years as an associate editor for two publications, “Wilson’s Bulletin” and “Bird-banding.”

Nice was the first women to serve as president of a major ornithological society in North America, serving Wilson’s Ornithological Society from 1937-1939 and Chicago Ornithological Society from 1940-1942. A passionate researcher (see her autobiography, “Research is a Passion with Me”) and dedicated mentor, Nice paved the way for many other women in the ornithological field. 


a black and white photo of a smiling woman with a duck in her hands
Permitted bander Amelia Laskey collects scientific data on a duck. Laskey documented where Chimney Swifts winter in Peru, Brown-headed Cowbirds are monogamous, and so much more! 
Amelia Laskey (1885-1973)

Naturalist and ornithologist Amelia Laskey began her studies with no formal scientific education or training. After moving to Tennessee with her husband in 1921, her love of gardening and nature led her to a local gardening club. Just a few short years later in 1928, she joined the Tennessee Ornithological Society (TOS). Her passion for the natural world was evident in her first publication in “The Migrant” (TOS’ magazine) entitled “Attracting Birds to the Home.”

In 1931, Laskey received her bird banding permit and over the span of the next 40 years, with encouragement from her mentor Margaret Morse Nice, proceeded to publish over 150 papers on more than 10 different species. Her studies on bird behavior were broad, focusing on migration, territoriality, mating, nesting habits, song development, and longevity. Laskey’s findings spanned the range of ornithology. She documented that Chimney Swifts winter in Peru, Brown-headed Cowbirds are monogamous, and winter and summer populations of Field Sparrows differ even though they are year-round residents. She also described life history patterns of Mockingbirds, and added four bird species to the Tennessee state list. Laskey believed that direct, prolonged observation of the behavior of specific individuals through the use of color bands could inform avian science. 

In 1948, a large number of bird casualties were discovered at Nashville Airport. Through her keen observations, Laskey discovered the ceilometer lights used for cloud detection disoriented migrating birds and that bird deaths could be avoided by filtering the light. Soon after, the U.S. government mandated such filters. Amelia Laskey’s legacy can still be seen today in many other ways. Scarritt College in Nashville is home to the Laskey Research Library and Archives. One of the first long-term Eastern Bluebird nest monitoring programs, started by Laskey in 1936, is still in operation today. In 1966, just a few years prior to her death in 1973, Laskey’s work was honored, and she was made a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union.



A woman with one knee on the snowy ground, with a eagle perched on her arm
Frances Hamerstrom handling an eagle. 
Frances Hamerstrom (1907-1998) 

Born 1907 in Boston, Massachusetts, Frances Hamerstrom (née Flint) earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Iowa State University following a few false starts into her education (she admitted to being distracted by “birds and boys”). Both she and her husband Frederick then moved to Wisconsin to study under Aldo Leopold at University of Wisconsin-Madison with Hamerstrom as Leopold’s only female graduate student. In 1940 she became the first woman to earn a master’s degree in wildlife management. 

After graduate school, the couple focused their research on Greater Prairie Chickens and other Wisconsin grouse suffering dramatic habitat loss and population declines. But it was Hamerstrom’s fascination with raptors, and her knowledge as an accomplished falconer, that led her to apply her expertise to the study of raptor population, becoming one of the first biologists to mark raptors with uniquely identifying color bands. Her life’s work included projects studying Ospreys in Mexico and Harris’s Hawks in Texas.  At home in Wisconsin, she studied the use of nest boxes as management tools for American Kestrels and investigated the relationship between population density and local food abundance in a long-term study of Northern Harrier populations.

In 1961, Hamerstrom was awarded an honorary doctorate from Carroll College in Wisconsin. She later received the National Wildlife Federation’s Special Achievement Award in 1970 and the President’s Award from the Raptor Research Foundation in 1975. Along with her husband, she was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in 1996. 

Hamerstrom continued studying birds and publishing about her findings and her life until her death in 1998 in Port Edwards, Wisconsin. Known as a great teacher, she trained hundreds of apprentices in ornithology and wildlife science throughout her career. Her life, aspirations, and contributions to science have no doubt inspired thousands. 


two women next to a lake, one is sitting in a swing hung off of a tree
Barbara Patterson (left) with her daughter, Louisa Patterson Malizia. Barbara Patterson studied birds at Acadia National Park and banded more than 28,000 songbirds over the years creating one of the region’s largest datasets. 
Barbara Patterson (1912-1991)

Born in 1912, Barbara Patterson moved to Acadia National Park with her husband when he was hired as the park’s landscape architect in 1934. With a lifelong passion for birds, she applied for a bird banding permit in 1957 and began a banding operation near her home in Somesville, Maine on Mount Desert Island that lasted 23 years. 

Working largely on her own and without institutional support, Patterson banded more than 28,000 songbirds over the years creating one of the region’s largest datasets. While she banded at different times of the year, her participation during fall migration with "Operation Recovery," a large-scale international project provided valuable records for Mount Desert Island as a strategic point along the Atlantic coast. Her significant efforts as a community scientist, meticulous attention to detail, and careful documentation provide a valuable historic baseline from which to compare modern banding efforts and studies of bird migration. 

Patterson died in 1991 and a substantial collection of her records and correspondence with renowned ornithologists was donated to Acadia National Park in 2014.



Small bird in a bush
White-crowned Sparrows, like this one, are an incredibly well studied species thanks to ornithologist Barbara Blanchard DeWolfe. 
Barbara Blanchard DeWolfe (1912-2008)

The White-crowned Sparrow is known as “the white rat of ornithology” in part due to its intense study and prolific publications (over 30!) by Barbara Blanchard DeWolfe. DeWolfe’s detailed studies were unique in zoology, utilizing behavioral observations of wild birds rather than physical characteristics of museum specimens.

DeWolfe saw much of American history first-hand. Born in San Francisco, California in 1912, she aspired to become a high school biology teacher, one of the few careers open to women. After receiving her undergraduate degree in zoology in 1933, she applied to positions but, at the height of the Great Depression, found that institutions wanted teachers who could also coach a sport. Turning her attention back to academia, she acquired a bird banding permit to pursue her dissertation identifying differences between White-crowned Sparrow subspecies in not only migration patterns but also the timing, duration, and physical changes of breeding birds, as well as local song variations. In 1939, she earned a PhD in zoology from University of California Berkeley.

DeWolfe taught at Placer Junior College. Following Pearl Harbor, many of her Japanese American students were sent to internment camps and she left Placer for a position at UC Davis. Less than a year later, during the height of WW2, education was suspended as many young men enlisted and DeWolfe was let go. Facing discrimination and hard-pressed to acquire a job over men with similar skills, DeWolfe moved to Massachusetts to teach at Smith College, an all-women’s school. Disliking the East Coast, she found at job at University of California Santa Barbara, where she taught until 1977 retiring as an Associate Dean. In 1979, she became an American Ornithological Society Fellow and, in 1995, received the Cooper Ornithological Society's Loye & Alden Miller Research Award for lifetime achievement in ornithological research.



a screenshot of a publication
A screenshot of banding highlights from the North American Bird Bander Vol. 18, No. 2 published in 1993. Two prominent banders in the North American Bird Banding Program's history, Edith Andrews and Elise Lapham, provide 1992 review of bandings for Nantucket Island, MA and Block Island, RI, respectively. 
Elise Lapham (1914-2013)

Elise Lapham, when 55 years young, opened and operated a banding station on Block Island, Rhode Island. Since opening the station in 1967, over 100,000 birds have been banded from 162 species and is one of the longest running stations in North America. This was only possible due to Lapham’s great care of the natural world and protecting the habitats that birds so desperately depend on for survival. She and her husband worked with The Nature Conservancy and the State of Rhode Island, placing 140 acres of their land into permanent conservation easement to protect it from future development. It was on this land that Lapham also planted thousands of trees and other plants to sustain birds and other wildlife that call Block Island “home” or use this important area as a stopover location during their migratory journey. 

Lapham was a gardener, active community member, educator, dedicated conservationist to birds and the natural world. She was also the mother to four children, and a grandmother. In 1995 she received the Block Island Bayberry Wreath award for outstanding service to the island’s conservation; it was followed by the Distinguished Naturalist Award from the Rhode Island Natural History Society in 2006. She co-authored an article on landbird migration and conservation implications on Block Island in the Society’s book, “The Ecology of Block Island.” She was also a lifetime member to the Eastern Bird Banding Association (EBBA) since 1982 and recognized by EBBA as a long-time bander who greatly contributed to ornithology. As an educator, she believed that showing people birds in the hand would make them avian conservation advocates. Her philosophy stands today, and the banding station remains open to the public, ready to inspire future birders and wildlife scientists.



Edith Andrews (1915-2015)

Edith F. Andrew’s was the ‘Nan’ of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. She first visited the island with family, following her university graduation. During this trip, she visited the birthplace of Maria Mitchell, a prominent woman in astronomy. Little did she know the impact this visit would have on her career, as Andrews would go on to work for the Maria Mitchell Association for ~50 years! 

Soon after, she started teaching on Nantucket Island, becoming a year-round resident and recording the local birds. Leaving the island only to obtain her master’s degree in biology with a specialization in ornithology under the founder of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, her knowledge of the birds of Nantucket grew. She co-authored “The Birds of Nantucket” in 1948, to share this passion. Andrews formed the island’s first bird club, along with starting and organizing Nantucket’s yearly Christmas Bird Count in the early 1950’s and continuing today.

During her career as staff ornithologist for the Maria Mitchell Association she curated half of the 1,500 specimens in the collection (later named in her honor). But her impact on the bird science world did not stop there. In 1963 she moved to the University of Massachusetts Nantucket Field Station where she began banding birds and sharing her knowledge with university students. In the 1980s, she began banding at Mothball Pines and between the two locations banded over 55,000 birds! Through banding she collected valuable data on the species and populations that reside on Nantucket.

A mentor to the birding community, an educator, and a precise scientist, Andrews received several awards including: the Allen H. Morgan Award, the Maria Mitchell Association’s Women in Science Award, and Honorary Member of the Nuttall Ornithological Club. 

“You have to go and look. If you don’t look, you don’t see” – Edith F. Andrews. 



a women with pink lip stick and a blue jacket, smiling while holding a brown bird with a yellow-tipped tail
Bird bander Mary Houston excitedly holds a Bohemian Waxwing, she has banded more of this waxwing species then any other bander! 
Mary Houston (1924-2019) 

Mary Houston holds the North American record for most Bohemian Waxwings banded, with over 5,000 birds across 63 years! This record is extremely impressive as this species primarily eats fruit outside of the breeding season, making it difficult to capture them at feeders. With help from a tree in her yard, Houston froze large clumps of berries that she used to lure the birds. But this record is still only a fraction of the over 75,000 birds of various species Houston banded. Over her years as a bander, she wrote seven species accounts for the Birds of Saskatchewan, co-authored a book, wrote 11 book chapters, 93 scientific papers and provided insight and criticism for numerous other writings. She also contributed to the installation of 207 bird boxes and taught the Saskatoon Junior Naturalists how to properly observe and document nestbox birds. 

Houston was a teacher with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Education from the University of Saskatchewan. She was incredibly accomplished and received numerous awards and recognitions for her devotion, including being named one of the “Outstanding Saskatoon Women” in International Women’s Year (1975), being elected Fellow of Saskatchewan Natural History Society (1987), receiving the Douglas H. Pimlott Conservation award presented by the Canadian Nature Federation (1988) and the Meewasin Conservation award (1996) to name a few. Her legacy lives on though her family and in the Stuart and Mary Houston Professorship in Ornithology at the University of Saskatchewan, she and her husband created in 2002 to which she left an endowment upon her passing in 2019. 


a women sitting in a chair, in a red suit with a green frog pin
Bird Bander Helen Hays in the Great Gull Island Project office at the American Museum of Natural History. 
Helen Hays (Born 1932) 

Born in 1932, Helen Hays grew up in New York and attended Cornell University where she studied Ruddy Ducks at the Delta Waterfowl Research Station in Manitoba, Canada. Following her studies, Hays worked for the American Museum of Natural History and was tasked with the restoration of bird populations on Great Gull Island. In 1969, Hays got her own bird banding permit and, while focused on the nesting Common and Roseate Terns, Hays and her students studied every bird species on the island. They documented the polyandrous mating system of the Spotted Sandpiper and, in 1978, the first confirmed record of Townsend’s Warbler in New York.

Under Hays’ supervision, Great Gull Island (GGI) became one of the largest and best-studied Common and Roseate Tern colonies in the world. Between 1969 and 2019, thousands of Common and Roseate Terns were banded on GGI and resightings continue to provide valuable insights into tern biology and migration.  One Common Tern banded on the island was recovered in the interior of South America, in northern Bolivia; a Roseate Tern from GGI was found in western Columbia and was the first of the species to be documented along the Pacific coast of South America.  In 1995, Hays led a team to South America and discovered major winter concentrations of Roseate Terns in Brazil and Common Terns in Argentina, found a trans-Atlantic migration of Roseate Terns from Brazil to the Azores, and established joint banding projects with Argentine and Brazilian researchers. 

Hays and the GGI Project have over a hundred publications! The most recent ones appear in Transactions of the Linnaean Society of New York, vol. XI. Hays has received many awards and accolades honoring her career and her legacy is featured in a documentary film, “Full Circle,” released in 2022.



An older women smiles for the camera, she's holding a small brown bird and measuring its wing
Bird bander Hannah Suthers, collects data from an Ovenbird. As a bander, Suthers founded the Featherbed Lane Bird Banding Research Station in 1977, one of the longest-running privately-run bird banding stations in the United States! 
Hannah Suthers (Born 1931) 

Born in Ohio and raised in Hawaii, Hannah Bonsey Suthers was always absorbed by the study of birds. Obtaining her bird banding permit in 1953, she studied birds and shared her knowledge about birds and bird banding, all as a volunteer. Prior to her retirement in the mid-2000s, Suthers would band in the morning and then spend her work-day as a researcher studying slime molds for Princeton University. In 1969 Suthers began recording the birdlife in the Sourlands of Hopewell, New Jersey and, in 1977, founded the Featherbed Lane Bird Banding Research Station, one of the longest-running privately-run bird banding stations in the United States! 

Known as the “Bird Woman of the Sourlands,” Suthers worked to fill gaps in bird banding knowledge, like determining how to age Gray Catbirds, a common but often overlooked bird. She also contributed to several projects including the Institute for Bird Populations’ Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship, the Avian Connectivity Project, the New Jersey Breeding Bird Atlas, the Christmas Bird Count, and the Atlantic Flyway Project. Suthers was also active in the Eastern Bird Banding Association, serving as president and co-authoring EBBA’s “Introduction to Statistics for Bird Banders.” She is also a licensed avian rehabilitator. 

Her long-term research on changing habitat and bird populations in the Sourlands contributed to the Science journal article “Decline of North American Avifauna” estimating a loss of nearly 3 billion birds since the 1970’s and established Featherbed Lane Banding Station and the surrounding land as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. Suthers is a wealth of knowledge, publishing dozens of articles on her work, from banding to rehab to slime molds. She has won several awards, including the Donald B. Jones Conservation Award and the Women and Wildlife Leadership Award. Now in her 90s, Suthers continues to inspire! 


One last thank you, to wrap-up Women’s History Month  

These women are, of course, only a small representation of all the women ornithologists and banders that have contributed to avian science. Their work has transformed and shaped our understanding of avian science in a myriad of ways, contributing small moments of brilliance built upon decades of dedication and research. We celebrate their incredible efforts and, like the women who came before them, these scientists, ecologists, and conservationists inspire the next generation. 


Thank you to our staff at the USGS EESC Bird Banding Laboratory, our partners at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) - Bird Banding Office, Joe DiCostanzo and Grace Commons for providing text on these wonderful women! 

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