Nice, Margaret Morse

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(b. Amherst, Massachusetts, 6 December 1883; d. Chicago, Illinois, 26 June 1974)

ornithology, animal behavior, ecology.

Nice is best known for her work in field ornithology. She also played a leading role in introducing to American ornithologists and behavioral biologists the work of the European ethologists Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen. Her life experiences reflect how the cultural expectations of her day imposed obstacles to women of talent who aspired to be contributors to science.

Early Life and Studies Margaret Morse Nice was the fourth of seven children of Anson Daniel Morse, a professor of history at Amherst College, and Margaret Duncan Ely Morse. As a youth, she displayed an enthusiasm for the outdoors and for nature study, both of which seem to have been encouraged by her parents. This support had its limits, however, as they were disinclined to think that their daughters should become anything other than mothers and homemakers. The parents were nonetheless happy to send Margaret in 1901 to nearby Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. There she gained a familiarity with modern languages that would later serve her well as an ornithologist, but she was uninspired by the instruction she received in zoology; she felt that her classes in that subject bore little relation to her interest in living animals in the wild. She did not decide to attend graduate school until after encountering Clifton F. Hodge, a biologist at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, who persuaded her that it was possible to be a zoologist who was more interested in studying the lives of animals than dissecting animal bodies.

Margaret Morse enrolled at Clark University as a graduate student in 1907. She found Hodge and the developmental psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, to be highly stimulating teachers. She undertook research on the food of the bobwhite, thinking that this could become the subject of a doctoral dissertation. Her graduate career was cut short, however, by her marriage in 1909 to fellow graduate student Leonard Blaine Nice. She took on the roles of wife and then mother. The first of her five children (all daughters) was born in 1910. Nice later acknowledged having some regrets for not completing her PhD work, and she objected when, even after gaining fame for her own researches, she was identified as a “housewife” rather than as a “trained zoologist.”

Her husband’s career as an academic physiologist took the family to Boston in 1911 and then successively to Norman, Oklahoma (in 1913); Columbus, Ohio (in 1927); and Chicago, Illinois (in 1936). Caring for a growing family left Margaret Nice with little time for research, but she made the best that she could of her situation. She observed systematically her first child’s acquisition and use of words. The findings she published in 1915 were counted as a master’s thesis eight years later by Clark University, and she was awarded a master’s degree in psychology, backdated to 1915.

Nice had become a bird-watcher as a child, and she had chosen a bird study for her research as a graduate student. She returned to the study of birds in earnest in 1919, provoked by a proposed change in the Oklahoma state game laws that would have led to the shooting of young mourning doves. Her investigations of the nesting times of mourning doves led her back to the study of birds in the wild and to a desire to know all the birds of the region. Her efforts culminated in her publication, with her husband, of The Birds of Oklahoma (1924). Upon moving to Ohio in 1927, her initial impulse seems to have been to come to know all the birds of her new surroundings. Over time, however, she came to concentrate her attentions on the life histories of birds of a single species, the song sparrow (Melospiza melodia).

Song Sparrow Research Nice’s song sparrow studies exploited recent innovations in the practice of bird banding. Banding had begun around the turn of the twentieth century as an aid to the study of bird migration. In the late 1910s, bird-watchers started trapping birds and putting distinctive, colored bands on birds’ legs as means of identifying individual birds in the field. Nice exploited this technique to the fullest. She trapped and banded her first song sparrow in the spring of 1928. The following year she conducted an intensive study of two song sparrow pairs. She subsequently expanded her efforts, making a census of all the song sparrows in Interpont, a forty-acre floodplain near her home in Columbus. By 1935 she had banded a total of 870 song sparrows. She recorded the behavior of individual birds throughout their lives, kept track of family lineages, located the territories that individual birds occupied from year to year, and studied the birds’ mating, migration, song production, and more. Focusing on the detailed life histories of all the individuals in a local population over the course of many seasons, this study was unprecedented. From Nice’s perspective the work had an additional attraction: She could happily

report at the end of her eight-year project that she had killed no birds and collected no eggs in the course of her studies. Her activities as an investigator had tended toward the bird’s protection rather than its destruction.

Prominent among Nice’s concerns in her song sparrow research was the idea that males occupy and defend territories, an idea made current by the English ornithologist H. Eliot Howard through his studies of British warblers and his book, Territory in Bird Life (1920). Howard himself had not banded the birds he studied. Nice, in contrast, banded her subjects and followed in detail the way the males birds established and defended their territories, courted females, and so forth. She described the respective behavior patterns of invaders and defenders during territorial encounters. She also paid special attention to the role of birdsong in territorial behavior and to the development of territorial song in the individual. In addition she explored the relation of territorial defense to questions of population. She concluded that in the song sparrow, territorial behavior serves to prevent overcrowding.

Contacts and Influence By attending meetings of ornithological societies in the United States and Europe, Nice came to know the world’s leading ornithologists. At the 1931 meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union, she met the young German ornithologist Ernst Mayr, who was working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He was impressed by her work and put her in touch with Erwin Stresemann, the editor of the German Journal für Ornithologie, which was the most distinguished ornithological journal in the world at the time. Nice’s first extended account of her song sparrow work appeared in Stresemann’s journal, in German, in 1933 and 1934 under the title “Zur Naturgeschichte des Singammers.” She elaborated on her work in later articles, and most importantly in two monographs titled “Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow,” published thanks to Mayr’s help in the Transactions of the Linnaean Society of New York (1937, 1943).

Nice’s scientific contacts, her own work as a field ornithologist, and her facility with modern languages provided her with a broad view of contemporary advances in ornithology. In 1934 she began reviewing current ornithological literature on bird behavior, ecology, and life histories for the journal Bird-Banding. From then until 1942, when ill health caused her to curtail her work, she wrote hundreds of abstracts on the latest work in the field. In the mid-1930s she signaled to American ornithologists the importance of the work of the young Austrian naturalist Konrad Lorenz, whom she had met in Oxford in 1934 at the Eighth International Ornithological Congress. She in turn influenced Lorenz’s own thinking, at least indirectly, for it was she who put Lorenz in contact with the American psychologist Wallace Craig, whose ideas profoundly affected Lorenz’s understanding of instinct. Concluding that the work of Lorenz and his Dutch colleague, Nikolaas Tinbergen, provided the most promising foundation for studying wild birds under natural or seminatural conditions, Nice spent a month in 1938 in Lorenz’s home in Austria learning Lorenz’s techniques of raising and studying young nestlings. The second volume of her song sparrow study, focusing on behavioral questions, reflected her commitment to the views of the European ethologists.

Nice’s most important contributions to ornithology were in the area of scientific practice. Through her systematic trapping, banding, and observing of birds in the wild, she made visible the scientific possibilities of life history studies. She is additionally noteworthy for the major role she played in the network of communication among twentieth-century ornithologists interested in field studies and behavior, despite the fact that she never held an academic position. European ornithologists also appreciated the active role she played after World War II in arranging for CARE packages to be sent to ornithologists in need of food, clothing, and other daily necessities. Throughout her career she was a forceful spokesperson for conservation. She was the first woman to be made president of a major American ornithological society, the Wilson Ornithological Club, in 1938–1939. That organization, now the Wilson Ornithological Society, began in 1997 awarding annually the Margaret Morse Nice Medal to an individual or individuals distinguished by “a lifetime of contribution to ornithology.”


The bulk of Nice’s manuscript correspondence and other papers are at the Cornell University Library. The best published source for a bibliography is her Research Is a Passion with Me, cited below. Additional items relating to her editorial work for Bird-Banding and the Wilson Bulletin are held by the Wilson Ornithological Society.


“The Development of a Child’s Vocabulary in Relation to Environment.” Pedagogical Seminary 22 (1915): 35–64.

With Leonard Blaine Nice. The Birds of Oklahoma. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1924.

“The Theory of Territorialism and Its Development.” In Fifty Years’ Progress of American Ornithology, 1883–1933, by the American Ornithologists’ Union. Lancaster, PA: American Ornithologists’ Union, 1933.

“Zur Naturgeschichte des Singammers.” Journal für Ornithologie 81 (1933): 552–595; 82 (1934):1-96.

“Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow. I. A Population Study of the Song Sparrow.” Transactions of the Linnaean Society of New York 4 (1937): 1–247. Nice’s most important work.

“The Social Kumpan and the Song Sparrow.” Auk 56 (1939): 255–262.

“Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow. II. The Behavior of the Song Sparrow and Other Passerines.” Transactions of the Linnaean Society of New York 6 (1943): 1–328.

“Development of Behavior in Precocial Birds.” Transactions of the Linnaean Society of New York 8 (1962): 1–211.

Research Is a Passion with Me. Edited by Doris Heustis Speirs. Toronto: Consolidated Amethyst Communications, 1979. Nice’s autobiography, containing an extensive but not wholly complete bibliography of her published writings.


Ainley, Marianne Gosztonyi. “Field Work and Family: North

American Women Ornithologists, 1900–1950.” In Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives: Women in Science, 1789–1979, edited by Pnina G. Abir-Am and Dorinda Outram. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Furumoto, Laurel, and Elizabeth Scarborough. “Placing Women in the History of Comparative Psychology: Margaret Floy Washburn and Margaret Morse Nice.” In Historical Perspectives and the International Status of Comparative Psychology, edited by Ethel Tobach. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum, 1987.

Mayr, Ernst. “Epilogue: Materials for a History of American Ornithology.” In Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present, by Erwin Stresemann, edited by G. William Cottrell, translated by Hans J. Epstein and Cathleen Epstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Mitman, Gregg, and Richard W. Burkhardt Jr. “Struggling for Identity: The Study of Animal Behavior in America, 1930–1945.” In The Expansion of American Biology, edited by Keith R. Benson, Jane Maienschein, and Ronald Rainger. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Trautman, Milton B. “In Memoriam: Margaret Morse Nice.” Auk 94 (1977): 430–441.

Richard W. Burkhardt Jr .