Ernest Baynes was the closest thing New England, and the world for that matter, will ever get to a real-life Dr. Doolittle. All sorts of New England birds and animals–foxes, wolves, chickadees, bears and bison–roamed around and in and out of his house, “Sunset Ridge,” in Meriden, N.H.
Though he never claimed to talk to the animals, he did just about everything else with them. His cordial relations with animals resulted from treating them like friends, he said. And by the standards of his day, animals never had a better friend than Ernest Baynes.
Armed with an outsized reputation as a naturalist, he had a gift for ingratiating himself with powerful people. He used that gift to forever change the fortunes of two particular animals: bison and songbirds.
While it might be a stretch to say that these animals would be extinct without his taking an interest, it’s no stretch to say no one did more to popularize their plight.
Baynes was born in 1868 in Calcutta, India. His parents, John and Helen, were of English origin, and he was educated in English schools as a young boy. At age 11, the family came to Bronx Park, N.Y., and he graduated as valedictorian of his high school class. He went on to attend the College of the City of New York.
In college, Baynes excelled in athletics as a runner and a lacrosse player. He explored the law as a potential career. For a time he worked with his father, who invented celluloid film, in attempting to establish a business.
But he soon settled on nature as his true calling. A bout of typhoid kept him out of the Spanish-American War, and his course was set. A short stint as a reporter for the New York Times had sharpened his writing. Soon he regularly contributed articles on nature and animals to magazines and newspapers in the 1890s.
With no formal education in science, Baynes had a natural ability to examine the natural world. Without the constraints of scholarly publishing, he became a wildlife showman through his articles and appearances.
In 1901, he married and settled in Stoneham, Mass. Here, located near the Middlesex Fells, he studied birds in greater detail. He also took to raising orphaned animals and famously led a children’s brigade in feeding wildlife during one particularly hard winter. In 1903, his father died in Portland, Maine, and the next year Baynes moved farther afield to Meriden. It was here that he adopted the bison as his pet cause, both literally and figuratively.
Baynes’ home was on the edge of the Blue Mountain Forest, also known as Corbin Park, a wildlife preserve established by New Hampshire businessman Austin Corbin. The park was home to a herd of 160 buffaloes, which represented a huge percentage of the overall population.
Bison neared extinction as a result of over-hunting and encroachment on their habitat. Their population fell to just 1,000 animals by 1890, down from its peak of 60 million. Very few were left in the wild. Corbin’s bison herd was a valuable resource for those who wanted to preserve the animals.
Austin Corbin, Jr., was by 1904 entrusted with running the park his father established. However he feared he couldn’t sustain the expense of maintaining the buffalo herd. When Baynes arrived in 1904, he was named conservator for the park. The then immediately began putting his skills to work.
He authored a series of articles to begin raising public awareness about bison. In them he hinted that if the government did not act, the Corbin buffaloes would not survive.
Baynes tamed some bison, feeding the calves by hand with a bottle. He famously rode around the Corbin estate in a wagon pulled by two trained bison, just like a team of oxen. From time to time bison could even be found wandering inside Baynes’ house.
This hand-rearing of wild animals was something Baynes did frequently. He raised fox, raccoon, and wolves. His attempts at raising a bear came to a bad end, however, when he couldn’t teach the bear house manners. Baynes could not be prevent it from raiding his pantry. The bear then ended his days in the Bronx Zoo.
Baynes used his animal-taming antics to build himself a following and reputation as a naturalist. Not unlike a modern day zookeeper visiting the Tonight Show with exotic animals, Baynes developed a fan base for his lectures. Later, he wrote books. And he used the fame to promote his conservation causes.
When President Teddy Roosevelt visited Corbin Park in 1902 to go hunting, he had already shown an interest in the bison. Roosevelt’s long-standing interest in wildlife led him to establish the National Park System. So in 1904 when Baynes wrote him about plans to help increase the herds of buffalo in the American West, he had a ready-made supporter of the plan in the White House.
The American Bison Society was formed, with Baynes as its founding secretary, and Roosevelt as honorary chairman. Soon, the association became the cause of the day, attracting support from wealthy philanthropists. It became the private-sector partner to the government’s efforts to preserve and increase the numbers of American bison. Baynes’ work paid off, and, within 15 years, the bison population had increased to 20,000. The recovery of the herds was underway.
Ernest Baynes for the Birds
Equally important to Baynes was the fate of the songbirds. His quirky affection for animals was at its over-the-top best when it came to birds. He authored a popular book in 1915: Wild Bird Guests: How to Entertain Them.
In it he included tips for protecting wild birds from the elements, as well as projects such as a birdfeeder that could be constructed in the window box of a home so people could see the birds up close. As usual, there was an ulterior motive to his showmanship: protecting birds from being killed for their plumage. The book contains lengthy discussions of the economic and natural costs of decimating the bird population.
He extended his activism to establishing one of the first bird sanctuaries in the nation in Meriden. To mark its opening in 1913 he enlisted poet Percy MacKaye, a member of the Cornish Art Colony, to write a play, Sanctuary: A Bird Masque. It was a naked effort at bolstering public opinion against continued slaughter of birds for their plumage.
With a featured role for himself, the play also included a spot in the cast for the daughters of then-president Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson was in nearby Cornish, N.H., staying at the home of American author Winston Churchill for a short summer break. Baynes mounted the play in Meriden. And no doubt the message was not lost on Wilson, who watched from the audience.
At the time, the Underwood Tariff Bill was in Congress. Bird-lovers everywhere wanted to ensure the bill included a ban on importation of bird feathers for their decorative value. The play helped keep the heat on. When Wilson returned from his vacation to sign the bill, the language about birds hadn’t changed.
The play went on a nationwide tour. It fueled the growth of the movement for bird protection that roared ahead full-steam in the 1910s. And it enjoyed a revival in New Hampshire’s upper valley.
Baynes died in January of 1925, leaving a legacy of activism on behalf of animals. But his activism had its limits. He supported the right to conduct medical experiments on animals, an issue as hotly debated then as now.
And his obituary told the story of a varied and interesting life. He traveled the world, usually chronicling the activities of animals. When he died, he was cremated and his ashes scattered on Mount Croydon near his home. A monument on the mountain reads: “Here were scattered the ashes of Ernest Harold Baynes, lover of animals and men, and loved of them. May 1, 1868, January 21, 1925.”
Much of the personal history of Baynes in this article comes from Ernest Harold Baynes, Naturalist and Crusader by Raymond Gorges, 1928. This story was updated in 2022.