Margaret Morse Nice

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Margaret Nice (Morse)

Birthdate: (91)
Birthplace: Amherst, Massachusetts
Death: Died in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Anson D. Morse and Margaret Duncan Morse
Wife of Leonard Blaine Nice

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Immediate Family

About Margaret Morse Nice

Margaret Morse Nice (December 6, 1883 – June 26, 1974) was an American ornithologist who made an extensive study of the life history of the Song Sparrow and was author of Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow (1937).

Margaret Morse Nice (December 6, 1883 – June 26, 1974) was an American ornithologist who made an extensive study of the life history of the Song Sparrow and was author of Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow (1937).

Early life

Nice was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. The daughter of Anson D. Morse, Professor of History at Amherst College, and Margaret Duncan (Ely), she was the fourth child with two older brothers Ely and William, an elder sister Sarah, a younger sister Katherine and two younger brothers, Harold and Edward.

In her autobiography Research Is a Passion With Me (1979), she wrote that "the most cherished Christmas present of my life came in 1895. Mabel Osgood Wright's Bird-Craft." This book had color illustrations of birds and it guided her to keep notes on local birds when she was twelve years old. With careful note making she was even able to compare her notes taken when she was 13 years old and compare the rates of fledgling success of young American robins, chipping sparrows, and least flycatchers 61 years later.

She received her B.A. from Mount Holyoke College in 1906 and M.A. in biology from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1915. At Clark University she was only one of two women graduate students. During this time she produced the first comprehensive study on the diet of the Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus).

Later life

At Clark University, Margaret met Leonard Blaine Nice and they married in 1908. The family moved to Norman, Oklahoma where Leonard had accepted a faculty position at the University. They had five children, Constance, born 1911, Marjorie, 1912, Barbara, 1916, Eleanor, 1918, and Janet, born 1922. Eleanor died of pneumonia at age nine in Columbus, Ohio.

From 1913 to 1927 she studied the birds of Oklahoma which were published as the "Birds of Oklahoma" in 1931. During the time in Oklahoma, she also became very interested in child psychology on which she published 18 articles. She studied her own children, their vocabulary, sentence length and speech development. In 1927 she moved to Columbus, Ohio, where Blaine had accepted a professorship at the Ohio State University. Here she carried out the study of sparrows that established her as one of the leading ornithologists in the world, recording the behavior of individual birds over a long period of time. She studied two banded pairs of birds initially and later 69 banded pairs. Beginning in 1929, she spent eight years studying these birds and focused on interactions, breeding, territoriality, learning, instinct and song. In 1931 she met Ernst Mayr at a meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), and he encouraged her to write and arranged the publishing the results of her studies. Following the publication Nice was elected the first woman president of the Wilson Club and to fellowship of the AOU. In 1938 she spent two months studying the habits of captive birds with Konrad Lorenz in Austria.

Margaret Morse Nice died in Chicago on June 26, 1974 from arteriosclerosis, two months after the death of her husband.

Contributions to ornithology

Nice worked on the life-histories of birds at a time when most of the focus was on collection, description and geographic listing. Her work on the Song Sparrow is considered a landmark and Deborah Strom wrote in Bird Watching with American Women (1986) that her work was so vast and difficult that the mind boggles at the time and patience required. Ernst Mayr wrote that Nice almost single-handedly initiated a new era in American ornithology and the only effective counter movement against the list-chasing movement. Her first research paper was published with the help of Mayr and Erwin Stresemann in the German Journal für Ornithologie in 1933 and 1934 because American journals would not accept such long articles.

Nice wrote nearly 250 papers on birds, 3,000 book reviews and several books including the Birds of Oklahoma (1924), The Watcher at the Nest (1939) and her autobiography. Her autobiography was published posthumously with a preface by Konrad Lorenz.


Nice was made an honorary member of the British, Finnish, German, Dutch, and Swiss ornithological societies. She received the AOU's Brewster Medal in 1942 for her studies of the song sparrow, becoming the second woman to receive it after Florence Merriam Bailey. She received two honorary Doctorates, one from Mount Holyoke College during a class reunion (1955) and another from Elmira College (1962). Dean Richard Bond of Elmira College said about her:

She used the outdoors near her home as her laboratory and common species of birds as her subject. In so doing, she joined the ranks of the eminent ornithologists of all time, who saw so much in what appeared common to so many

—(Nice 1979:262-263)[4]

Ornithologist Robert Dickerman named a Mexican subspecies of song sparrow (Melospiza melodia niceae) after her.

In 1997 the Wilson Ornithological Society established the Margaret Morse Nice Medal for work in ornithology.

Selected publications

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Margaret Morse Nice's Timeline

Amherst, Massachusetts
Age 91
Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States