Nice, Margaret Morse (1883–1974)

views updated

Nice, Margaret Morse (1883–1974)

Internationally known American ornithologist . Born on December 6, 1883, in Amherst, Massachusetts; died on June 26, 1974, in Chicago, Illinois; daughter of Anson Morse (a history professor) and Margaret (Ely) Morse; Mt. Holyoke College, B.A., 1906; Clark University, M.A., 1915; married Leonard Blaine Nice (a medical professor), in 1909; children: Constance Nice (b.1910); Marjorie Nice (b. 1912); Barbara Nice (b. 1915); Eleanor Nice (1918–1928); Janet Nice (b. 1923).

Served as president of the Wilson Ornithological Society (1938–39); awarded Brewster Medal of the American Ornithological Union (1942); awarded honorary doctorate from Mt. Holyoke College (1955) and from Elmira College (1962).

Selected writings:

(with Leonard Blaine Nice) The Birds of Oklahoma (1924, rev. ed., 1931); Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow (2 vols., 1937 and 1943, rep. ed., 1964); The Watcher at the Nest (1939); (autobiography) Research Is a Passion With Me (1979).

Although Margaret Morse Nice did not earn a doctoral degree, hold a faculty position, or receive university funding, she established herself as one of the world's best-known ornithologists and bird behaviorists. She was the first to accomplish a long-term study of an individual bird in its natural habitat and the first woman to be elected president of a prominent American ornithological society.

Nice was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 6, 1883, the fourth of seven children of Anson and Margaret Morse . The family's house was surrounded by two acres of orchards and gardens, and both her parents loved nature and outdoor activities. Her father, a history professor at Amherst College, was also an avid gardener, and her mother, who had studied botany at Mt. Holyoke College, spent time teaching her daughter the names of local wildflowers. By the time Nice was 12 years old, she had begun to record her observations of the birds in her garden and publish her findings in a weekly self-published newspaper, entitled Fruit Acre News.

After attending elementary school and high school in Amherst, in 1901 Nice enrolled in Mt. Holyoke College, becoming the third woman in her mother's family to attend there. She studied languages and natural sciences, including ornithology, which at the time was taught in the zoology department and primarily consisted of studying and identifying species of dead, stuffed birds. Nice received her B.A. in 1906, and from 1907 to 1909 attended Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, as a biology fellow. There she also met her future husband, Leonard Blaine Nice, whom she married in August 1909. The following year, she published her first ornithological paper in the Journal of Economic Entomology. The fruits of two years' worth of detailed observation and research, "The Food of the Bob-white" reflected Nice's talent for gathering and organizing information. Her first child was born that year as well, and in 1911, the family moved to Cambridge, where Leonard attended medical school. In 1912, the Nices had another child and the following year moved to Normal, Oklahoma, where Leonard became head of the physiology department at the University of Oklahoma. Tied to the home while raising her young children, Nice became increasingly intrigued by child development and psychology, particularly the acquisition of language. She earned an M.A. in psychology from Clark University in 1915, and over the following two decades published 18 articles on child psychology.

Several years after receiving her degree from Clark, Nice began to apply her fascination with psychology and behavior to bird communities. With the encouragement of Althea Sherman , an amateur ornithologist and friend who warned about the dangers of becoming absorbed by household duties, Nice wrote and published several articles about Oklahoma's birds. In 1924, she published The Birds of Oklahoma, coauthored with her husband. In all, between 1920 and 1965 she would write approximately 250 research reports and articles about birds.

In 1927, Leonard Nice accepted a teaching position at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. The family moved to a house near the Olentangy River, a lowland wilderness area that attracted a large variety of nesting and migrating birds. There Nice accomplished her most significant studies, on mourning doves, warblers and, most important, song sparrows. She followed the principles of the English ornithologist H. Eliot Howard, who had described the territorialism of small birds in his 1920 book Territory in Bird Life. Her primary interest was in song sparrows, and her research began with putting colored bands on birds which she had also named and numbered. By doing so, she was able to observe the individual behavior of a bird and outline the bird's life history. Nice was the first to conduct this type of observation and research, and her work with song sparrows established her as one of the world's principal ornithologists and behaviorists. The German evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr claimed that Nice had begun "a new era in American ornithology…. She early recognized the importance of a study of bird individuals because this is the only method to get reliable life history data." (Despite her rising prominence, she was not invited to join the local, all-male ornithology club, although her husband was.) During the time she studied song sparrows, she published Studies in the Life History of the SongSparrow (1937, 1943) and The Watcher at the Nest (1939), which was intended for general readers. Nice's efforts were supported by her husband and by her children, who were often asked to climb trees and observe nests.

In 1936, Leonard Nice joined the faculty at Chicago Medical School, and the family moved to Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, which Nice found to be a poor place to carry out her research on birds. Using information she had previously collected, she continued to write about the life histories, territorialism, courtship, sexual dominance, and behavior of birds. She also wrote about ecology and conservation, the latter a subject in which she became increasingly outspoken. Nice wrote about the dangers of pesticides, the misuse of wildlife preserves, and the killing of albatrosses on Midway Island, and became dedicated to educating the public about a variety of conservation issues. She belonged to several ornithological and conservation associations, and was associate editor of the journal Bird-Banding for several years. She also translated ornithological papers from a number of foreign languages into English, exposing Americans to European ornithology. In 1938 and 1939, she was the first woman to serve as president of the Wilson Ornithological Society, and in 1942 she was awarded the Brewster Medal of the American Ornithologists' Union. She also received honorary doctorates from Mt. Holyoke College in 1955 and from Elmira College in 1962, and in 1969 the Wilson Ornithological Society began awarding the Margaret Morse Nice grant, which was reserved for amateur ornithologists. Nice died in Chicago at the age of 90, in 1974.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers and Scientists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Bailey, Martha J. American Women in Science. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1994.

McMurray, Emily, ed. Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1995.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

suggested reading:

Nice, Margaret Morse. Research Is a Passion With Me (autobiography). Toronto: Consolidated Amethyst, 1979.

Stresemann, Erwin. Ornithology: From Aristotle to the Present. 1975.

Trautman, Milton B. "In Memoriam: Margaret Morse Nice," in The Auk. July 1977.


Personal and professional papers of Margaret Morse Nice are located at the Cornell University Libraries. Milton Trautman's A Partial Bibliography of Margaret Morse Nice (1976) is available through the Museum of Zoology, Ohio State University.

Christine Miner Minderovic , freelance writer, Ann Arbor, Michigan

More From