VERNON ORLANDO BAILEY
Photo of Vernon Bailey

Vernon, the fourth child of Hiram and Emily Bailey, was born on June 21, 1864, in Manchester, Michigan. His father was a mason by trade, but a woodsman and hunter by inclination, and when Vernon was about six years old, his pioneer family moved to Elk River, Minnesota, on the western frontier, a 700-mile journey of some months in a horse-drawn wagon. The only opportunity for schooling in a homestead, such as his parents established, was at home, but late in 1873 the families of the adjacent area built a schoolhouse and formal course work began. It was the collection of specimens that he forwarded from there to Washington that led to his employment by Dr. C. Hart Merriam, founder of the agency that was later to become the Bureau of Biological Survey. First appointed as a special field agent in 1887, he soon became prominent among the corps of biologists then laying the foundations of a new governmental activity, and in 1890 he gained the title of chief field naturalist, which he cherished until his retirement in 1933 and which no other person has held since.

Practically every season of employment was marked by his field work in some part of the United States, including intensive biological surveys of Texas, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oregon, reported in the North American Fauna series, as well as many other studies described in other publications and in the popular articles he wrote so effectively for Nature Magazine and other periodicals. His colleagues considered his work in curating the Biological Survey’s collections and sources of information as especially noteworthy, though his writings made him known to more people. His contributions to the Biological Survey collection of mammals alone included about 13,000 specimens, a number of them new species. Dr. Merriam named a bobcat and a pocket mouse for Vernon.

It was during the years of his government service that he designed and perfected the trap used widely in connection with restocking projects to capture the animals alive and unhurt, and also his foothold trap, which he later improved for use on a variety of mammals and birds. For both of these traps he received prizes awarded by the American Humane Association, and after his retirement he did extensive work with and for that organization. He died at his home in Washington, D.C., at the age of 77 on April 20, 1942. He was survived by his wife, Florence Merriam Bailey, herself a noted ornithologist, whom he married in 1904.

Vernon’s outstanding publications included Beaver Habitat and Experiments in Beaver Culture, A Biological Survey of North Dakota, Biological Survey of Texas, Life Zones and Crop Zones of New Mexico, Mammals of New Mexico, The Mammals and Life Zones of Oregon, Revision of the Pocket Gophers of the Genus Thomomys, Cave Life of Kentucky, and Animal Life of the Carlsbad Caverns. There were many others, among them influential articles for general readers with such titles as Dwellers in the Desert, Humane Traps, Ways of the Beaver People, Animal Friends of the High Sierra, and How to Become a Naturalist, and such collaborations with Mrs. Bailey as the volume on Wild Animals of Glacier National Park, in which he wrote of the mammals and she of the birds.

Vernon was honored in many formal associations with his colleagues. He was a founder and past president of the American Society of Mammalogists, member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, past president of the Biological Society of Washington, president of the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia, fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and member of the Cooper Ornithological Society, Washington Academy of Sciences, the American Forestry Association, and other societies interested in wildlife and conservation.

He was elected to the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 1909, and terminated membership in 1918.