Cool Green Science

Ohio State University Biomuseum

Cool Green Science

Margaret Morse Nice, an American ornithologist, was born Dec. 6, 1883. She studied biology at Holyoke College and zoology as a graduate student, and wanted to pursue a career as a naturalist, but her parents persuaded her to abandon professional aspirations and accept a life as wife and mother, which she did. Her husband was a professor himself, and Margaret moved around as he advanced up the academic ladder, finally settling in Columbus, Ohio in 1927. It was there, while raising five daughters, that she returned to the study of animal behavior. She began observing birds in a way no one had before, studying the behavior and life-cycle of one particular species, the song sparrow (first image). She worked right in her backyard, which was essentially a large field-like park.  She named and banded hundreds of song sparrows, mapped their territories, measured their survival and reproductive rates, and listened to their songs (on one memorable day in May, 1935, she counted while sparrow 4M sang his song over 2300 times in a fifteen-hour span).  She published papers on her findings, but other ornithologists generally ignored Nice’s work, dismissing her as a “mere housewife.”   However, the tables turned in 1937, when her Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow was published and was almost immediately recognized as a milestone in animal ethology.  Indeed, the famous ethologist Konrad Lorenz later claimed that Nice was the true founder of his field. The book first appeared in two parts in the Transactions of the Linnaean Society of New York; it was not available to the general public until Dover Publications issued the Studies in a two-volume paperback in 1964 (second image). We reproduce  above one of the figures from the book, a song-sparrow territory map (third image).  The small black rectangle marks the location of Nice’s house.

Nice’s autobiography, Research is a Passion with Me, was published in 1979.  The cover of the hardbound (fourth image) has one of the few surviving photographs of the younger naturalist.  A photograph taken much later, in 1956, shows Nice in the field, inspecting some sparrow nests (fifth image).

If you would like to hear 45 seconds of a song sparrow singing, here is a link; try to imagine listening to this for 15 hours and keeping count, while sitting on your back doorstep. And bear in mind that song sparrows begin singing at 5:00 AM.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to