In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re taking a closer look at the life and work of some of the women who were important figures in the history of the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. For this final installment, we’re taking a look at Margaret Morse Nice (1883-1974).
Margaret Morse Nice was a highly respected ornithologist, specializing in animal behavior. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, Margaret was incredibly detail-oriented even as a young child. She kept meticulous notes on her family’s flock of chickens, recording which chickens pecked whom. Her love for animal observation was fostered by her many pets and her time bird watching on the family’s acres of Massachusetts countryside.
As a young adult, she attended Mount Holyoke College and studied French, German, and Italian. Her study in linguistics and interest in communication (be it human or animal) would later be integral to her groundbreaking work in the world of sparrows. She continued to hone her love of birds and a desire to understand their behaviors, completing a master’s degree in zoology through Clark University, where her thesis work focused on observations of the northern bobwhite.
She married Leonard Blaine Nice in 1909, and they relocated first to Oklahoma, then Ohio, and finally to Chicago, moving for her husband’s appointments. Margaret and Leonard had five daughters, and when they were young, Margaret became interested in the process of language development. She combined her acute observational skills with her studies in language and child psychology, collecting observational information as her children grew. She used this data to publish several articles on speech development.
In the late 1910s, the practice of bird banding (placing a small colorful band on the leg of a bird used for identification) was a new and innovative tool that Nice instantly adopted. Over the course of her work, she banded and studied 870 song sparrows, recording family lineages, territories, and behaviors of individual birds. With the information she collected, she uncovered complexities in the lives of these common birds that was previously unknown, demonstrating that song sparrow communication and territorial behavior benefit the current population by preventing overcrowding in an area.
Over the course of her career, she authored five books on birds, including “Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow” (1937) and “The Watcher at the Nest” (1939), over 200 published articles, and 1,800 editorial and literature reviews. Her focus on song sparrows awarded her the American Ornithologists’ Union’s Brewster Medal in 1943. She was the first woman president of the Wilson Ornithological Society (1937-1939), President of the Chicago Ornithological Society (1940-1942), Associate Editor of the Wilson Bulletin (1939-1949) and Associate Editor of Bird-Banding (1935-1942 and 1946-1974). Margaret Morse Nice’s pursuits helped spark greater interest for bird observational studies among her scientific peers and the general public.
Bringing Science Home
What’s in a song? Let’s compare song sparrow calls!
“Margaret Morse Nice: One woman’s contribution to ornithology”. Columbus Audubon. https://columbusaudubon.org/about-us/margaret-more-nice/
Edward H. Burtt, Jr. “Wilson Ornithological Society Establishes Margaret Morse Nice Medal.” The Wilson Bulletin, vol 110, no 1, March 1998. https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/wilson/v110n01/p0025-p0027.pdf
Milton B. Trautman. “In Memoriam: Margaret Morse Nice.” The Auk, vol. 94, July 1977. https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/auk/v094n03/p0430-p0441.pdf
Nice, Margaret Morse. “Birds of an Hungarian Lake.” The Chicago Naturalist, Vol. 3, No. 3, pg 79-85. Chicago Academy of Sciences, October 1940. Available at https://archive.org/details/ChicagoNaturalistV3N3/
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