Margaret Morse Nice

A color picture of a song sparrow sitting in the grass. The podcast logo is on the lower left.
Women in STEM
Margaret Morse Nice

Birth: December 6, 1883

Death: June 26, 1974

Specialty: Ornithology

Major Contributions:

“Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow”

First female president of The Wilson Club

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Margaret Morse Nice was twelve years old, she was gifted a book called Bird-Craft by Mabel Osgood Wright.  In her autobiography she described it as “the most cherished Christmas present of my life.”  She developed a habit of keeping notes on local birds, notes that she used decades later to compare her scientific observations over time.

Nice attended Mount Holyoke College then earned her master’s degree in biology from Clark University, as one of only two women in the graduate programs.  After her marriage, Nice moved to Oklahoma, where she wrote and published her first book Birds of Oklahoma.  The family would follow her husband’s career to Ohio and Illinois, where Nice studied the local bird populations.  While she wrote about many species, Nice is most well known for her work with song sparrows.  She spent eight years making observations of various bonded pairs of song sparrows, eventually writing several books on the topic including Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow.  This study helped her become one of the world’s leading ornithologists and the first woman president of a major American ornithological society when she led the Wilson Club.

Nice is credited with helping develop the study of animal behavior because she worked on long term and detailed studies of animals in the wild rather than studying samples or captive animals. Konard Lorenz, considered a founder of modern ethology, described Nice’s sparrows studies as a “major breakthrough in the methods of studying animal behavior.” Another leading evolutionary biologist observed that she “almost single-handedly initiated a new era in American ornithology.” 

She was a prolific writer, publishing multiple books, hundreds of papers, and thousands of book reviews.  Not content to merely study birds, Nice also wrote many articles on child psychology based on her observations of her own children and their language development.  Nice died in 1974, and in 1997 the Wilson Club established their highest annual award, The Margaret Morse Nice Medal, given in her honor.

Written by Mary Ratliff


Wikipedia: Margaret Morse Nice

The Battles of Song Sparrows: How a Scientific Outsider Changed How We Study Birds

Columbus Audubon

See Also:

In Memoriam: Margaret Morse Nice

Margaret Morse Nice Papers, Cornell University

Margaret Morse Nice Medal

For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie (Amazon)