Margaret Morse Nice thought like a song sparrow and changed how scientists understand animal behavior
Posted by admin on 13th December 2019

The invader, puffed out into the shape of a ball, fluttered one wing straight up in the air. He sang constantly and softly, incomplete songs in rapid succession. The defender, silent, hunched his shoulders in a menacing attitude, closely following every move of his foe.

This close observation, describing the territorial “ceremony” of two song sparrows, was made by a little-remembered scientist in the early 20th century. Margaret Morse Nice was a pioneering ethologist, bird-bander and ornithologist, who researched animal behavior for fifty years from the 1910s to the 1960s. “Territorial behavior” may be a common term today but, at the time, describing animals from the inside out was a radical departure from the “objective” methods of a dissection table or scientific lab.

Seeing the world as animals do is impossible, yet scientists try to do it all the time. I am a researcher who studies the history of science to understand how we know what we know about nature. This paradox has been central to research in field biology, from the behavioral ecology of birds to the evolutionary biology of snakes.

Nice’s work in animal behavior, understanding animals by watching what they did and why, was part of a new branch of science called ethology. Her research was relatively obscure by contrast to her male contemporaries. But recently, Nice’s standing in the field and history of science has gotten greater attention with the publication of a biography about her life, “For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice” by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie.

A song sparrow in the grasslands of Oregon.
John Yunker/

An ambitious scientist in a male-dominated field

By any measure, Nice’s career was astoundingly successful. But in the context of her life, her many scholarly achievements were even more remarkable. She was a wife and the mother of five daughters. As her husband’s academic career advanced, their family moved frequently.

Yet, even without a Ph.D. or institutional support, she excelled in a male-dominated field. By the end of her life in 1974, she had produced an impressive body of literature, publishing hundreds of articles and thousands of reviews, and presented her work around the world. Her peers, such as Karl Lorenz, Ernst Mayr and Aldo Leopold acknowledged her as an innovator in field ornithology and ethology. Lorenz wrote the foreword to Nice’s autobiography, “Research Is a Passion With Me.”

Margaret Morse, born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1883, was an avid outdoorsperson all her life. As a student at Mount Holyoke College, she found her zoology classes stultifying, with a focus on dissection and taxonomy that defined natural history at the time. This changed when she enrolled as a graduate student at Clark University in 1907. Faculty encouraged her in experimental and observational studies of animal behavior, and she began to research the feeding habits of the bobwhite.

She never finished her graduate studies, but instead married a fellow graduate student, Leonard Blaine Nice, in 1909 and soon began a family. Though by all accounts Nice had a happy marriage and satisfying family life, she nevertheless bristled at being labeled a housewife. When her children were young, she pursued her passion for research, including linguistic studies of her children’s language development. She later returned to behavioral studies of birds apart from academia.