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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

The Life Stories of Birds: How Margaret Morse Nice Ended Ornithology’s Long List Era.

When you headed out into the field as a 19th century ornithologist, you had one of two things in mind as to what constituted your profession: (1) to look for birds and add them to your regional list, or (2) to perhaps capture and kill some of those birds to study their physical properties later for taxonomic purposes. You wanted to know where different birds were, and what they looked like, but as to what they did with their lives, and why they did it, those were either questions of profound indifference, or ones so seemingly difficult to approach that it was a cavernous waste of time and effort to try.

Though many in the early Twentieth Century contributed to the reversal of this static conception of the study of bird life, there isn’t much doubt about who the most significant figure was in bringing behavioral studies into American fieldwork - Margaret Morse Nice (1883-1974). Her two books on the distribution and life stories of song sparrows were, quite simply, the foundational works that established how rigorous field study of a bird species ought to be done, while her three thousand reviews of ornithological papers and books, and constant personal efforts to unite the warring houses of European and American bird studies raised ornithology up from a broken sequence of regional efforts to a truly global effort to understand one of our planet’s most consistently fascinating and mesmerizing life forms.

Born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1883, Nice came into the world the same year that the American Ornithologists’ Union held its first meeting, giving bird enthusiasts and researchers for the first time an organization that would allow them to find each other and share their variously professional local studies (the Audubon Society was not founded until 1905). Her family, while not upper class, was at least wealthy enough to afford servants, and an aversion for household maintenance and cooking would stay with Nice for the rest of her life as a result, much to the chagrin of her more Victorian (though college educated) mother. Her parents were both devoted to the value of reading, and of experiencing nature, and young Nice never lacked either books or opportunities to freely explore the Massachusetts wilderness with one of her five siblings.

Her favorite book of childhood was Mabel Osgood Wright’s 1895 Bird-Craft, which combined color illustrations with closely written descriptions of two hundred native birds and put the young Nice onto the idea that minutely observing birds and writing about their lives could be the thing from which a career was made. At the age of thirteen, she wrote a pamphlet, The Fates and Fortunes of Fruit-Acre Birds, in which she described the results of her observation of a dozen different nests, noting which nests ultimately resulted in the successful hatching of birds and which did not. She also devoted herself to observing the interactions of the family’s chickens and wrote down her ideas about hen pecking order in 1897, some 24 years before Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe’s description of the phenomenon.

Nice’s high school offered a hefty selection of foreign languages, including German, French, Latin, and Greek, which would play a crucial role in her later success in bridging the gap between European and American ornithological traditions, but offered nothing by way of biological science, which Nice had to supply from her extra-curricular reading and habits of personal observation. Though her parents had little in mind for Nice’s future beyond the traditional role of family care, she was permitted to attend college, at her mother’s alma mater, Mount Holyoke.

This was a fortunate choice, as Holyoke (founded 1837) had a strong natural sciences program, and after matriculating there in 1901, Nice was able to take courses in zoology, psychology, physiology, cellular biology, botany, floriculture, geology, and astronomy, though her 1906 degree was ultimately in the more marketable discipline of French. Upon graduation, then, she faced the perpetual question of all early 20th century women college graduates - having spent four years of my life challenging my brain to its highest capacity, what do I do with my life now? Life back at home was understandably frustrating and confining, but nobody was beating a path to her door with offers of academic employment either. Not knowing what to do next, Nice enrolled in the Massachusetts Agricultural College’s summer program, where she happened to meet Clifton F. Hodge.

Hodge was a professor out of Clark University, which at the time bore the distinction of being the only college in the United States which existed purely as a graduate school, thanks to its director’s stubborn refusal, against the desire of the school’s founder and major donor Jonas Clark, to get off his butt and get the undergraduate program up and running. Hodge suggested that Nice should come to Clark to study bobwhites and her parents, seeing that anything outside of a biological career would only bring her slow-burning misery, agreed that she should pursue the opportunity.

At Clark, Nice had the opportunity at last to stretch her gifts for observation and organization to their scientific fullest, studying with both Hodge and developmental psychologist G. Stanley Hall, and meticulously carrying out her study of bobwhite dietary preferences. Her time as a graduate student, however, was cut short when she met Leonard Blaine Nice in 1908, and married him in 1909. Leonard was to be, in many ways, her ideal scientific companion, taking up childcare and household responsibilities in a way that the vast majority of early 20th century men would decidedly not have, while being unstintingly supportive of her scientific career. He did, however, carry his era’s expectation that whatever he needed, and wherever he needed to go, for his work would determine the course of his family’s future.

As such, after two years of married life, when Leonard had a chance to teach at Harvard Medical School, he took it, leaving Margaret with an unfinished PhD she would regret her whole life (though she would receive an MA from Clark at last in 1915). In 1913, Leonard switched jobs again, this time taking up a position at the University of Oklahoma, where the family would remain until 1927, and where Margaret finally had enough access to open nature to begin the work that would define her career.

Ornithologically, Oklahoma was something of a mess in 1913 when the Nices arrived. There were field guides to the birds of the region, but these ranged from woefully incomplete to just plain wrong in their descriptions of which birds could be found in which regions at what times. Unfortunately, there was not much that Nice could do about that during her first half-decade in the state, as during that time she and Leonard added another two children to the two they already had. Even with Leonard and the older children taking up slack in childcare and household duties, there simply wasn’t time in the day to do ornithological field studies the way they ought to be done, and so Margaret turned her scientific vision to what was directly before her, and decided to scientifically study her children’s stages of language acquisition, authoring sixteen papers on the subject from 1915 to 1926, including studies of how ambidexterity might relate to speech development, and of the progress and reasons behind extremely late language attainment.

Though Margaret only rarely returned to human psychology once she was able to do meaningful fieldwork with birds again, this period was important for the development of her observational method, and the refinement of her record-keeping methods that would make her bird studies of the 1920s and 1930s so eminently successful. That era in her life would really and truly begin in 1919, when a letter from an Oklahoma game warden in the pages of the Daily Oklahoman caught her eye. It advocated for an expansion of the hunting season on mourning doves, which Margaret viewed as catastrophically muddle-headed. The idea of allowing dove hunting in August, which she knew was a time when baby doves relied on their parents for nourishment, struck Nice as perverse, and she set out to collect the data to prove her assertion that dove nesting extended well into the proposed extended season.

By 1920, she had built up enough expertise in distinguishing local bird life to attempt a new census for Bird-Lore, an effort which succeeded in identifying thirty-three present species spread across over eleven hundred observed individuals. This was ornithology as it had been done for decades and centuries - see a bird, note the bird, move on. Work of this sort would form the basis of the book that would bring her to the attention of the wider ornithological community, 1924’s The Birds of Oklahoma, which detailed the results of her travels throughout the state in the early 1920s, and which would be expanded again in the definitive 1931 second edition.

In 1927, Leonard changed jobs yet again, and brought the family to Ohio, where Margaret would change herself from an excellent traditional ornithologist to a revolutionary one. Here, she narrowed her vision to one particular bird, the song sparrow, and developed the procedures and standards that would allow for an intensive field study of a single species. She extensively used bird banding to undergird her history of the migratory tendencies and territoriality of song sparrows, and the factors that seemed to inform the decision when and if to migrate. Her 1937 Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow brought a new arsenal of fieldwork techniques to American ornithology, using quantitative data and analysis to establish links between relevant environmental factors and individual behavioral decisions.

The book was almost universally applauded by the American ornithological establishment, which saw it as a bold way forward to understanding species beyond their physical attributes and brute presence or absence. The book was also important for introducing American audiences to the ideas of European behavioral science, which formed the theoretical basis for much of Nice’s work, and which were virtually unknown to American ornithology until Nice made it part of her life’s work to foster intercontinental scientific exchange between behavioral scientists in Europe and traditional field biologists in the United States. To this end, she gave untold thousands of hours of her time to review for American journals those European books and articles which her linguistic training and scientific expertise allowed her to comprehend, continuing that important work into her ninth decade of life.

The European influence was particularly evident in the second volume of her Song Sparrow study, released in 1943 and focusing more on the life cycle of individual birds than on their statistically determined territoriality and migration decisions. She learned from her theoretical mentor Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) how to find, raise, and study wild birds, as well as how to use his categorizations of instinctual, modified, and learned behaviors to unravel the minute stages of a bird’s development. Bringing these techniques to bear on her beloved sparrows, she raised and observed a series of baby birds, noting the variations in their development of song, instinctual reactions, and early battles for dominance, all while continuing and deepening her field studies of wild sparrows, their mating rituals, nesting procedures, and approaches to infant care.

If the first volume of Song Sparrow was a lightning bolt in the placid face of American ornithology, her second volume was an atom bomb, demonstrating unequivocally what animal behavior studies could be, when observational rigor, a mixture of wild and domestic study, and a willingness to engage in the fringes of theoretical explanations all merged into one bold multi-year effort to go beyond taxonomy, and begin to break down the basic components of psychology and behavior.

Song Sparrow II was the culmination of Nice’s career as a researcher. In the years following World War II, Nice devoted herself to the cause of locating and supporting the European scientists who had been scattered to the winds during the war, organizing the distribution of desperately needed care packages and, what some scientists who had been out of the loop for years considered more important than food itself, prints of papers detailing advances in their field.

With the settling of the post-war situation, Nice continued working in the 1950s, though at a progressively slower pace thanks to persistent health issues. In the early 1950s she researched the vastly different reported incubation times of different species, tracking some of the reported errors all the way back to assertions of Aristotle that had been uncritically carried forward over the course of 2300 years. In 1962 she produced an important report on precocial and altricial birds (i.e. birds which are able to care for themselves shortly after birth versus those that are born blind and totally dependent on their parents), once again using her categorizational talents to detail differences in development schedules among different precocial birds.

Nice’s last years were a bubbling mixture of frustration and honor. She was delighted at the founding of the Margaret Nice Ornithological Club in Toronto in 1952, and even more so at being awarded an honorary doctorate from her old alma mater, Mount Holyoke, in 1955, but at the same time felt troubled by the realization that her body was rapidly declining, and that she would likely never get the chance to go to distant lands and see some of the exotic birds that she had always half hoped she would one day make the time to visit. She was also disappointed in the lack of interest by academic publishing houses in printing her autobiography, Research is a Passion With Me, which was ultimately only released five years after her death through the efforts of Konrad Lorenz.

In 1971, Nice fell and broke her hip, after which she never fully regained the mobility that had been such a treasured part of her roving life. Leonard, her primary caretaker, died in January of 1974, and Margaret followed him less than half a year later, in June. The sparrow species Melospiza melodia niceae is named in her honor.


Nice’s autobiography is no longer in print, but it has been digitized and is readily available on the Kindle. For the most part, to find out about the significance of Nice in the context of the larger world of American ornithology, you want For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice (2018) by the legendary historian of women in science, Marilyn Ogilvie. I’m guessing there’s not a single person studying the history of women scientists today who didn’t have as their starting point the foundational work of Ogilvie from the 1980s, and this book is a testament to what she can do when her powers of analysis and historical detail are focused on a single individual and their times.


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