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February 2020

Vol. 48, No. 1

Margaret Morse Nice: The Woman who Changed American Ornithology

William E. Davis, Jr.


Figure 1. Margaret Morse Nice peering into a sparrow nest and talking to the young birds. Photograph by Al Ness, Life, September 10, 1956.

Margaret Morse Nice was born Margaret Morse on December 6, 1883, in Amherst, Massachusetts, into an academic family. Her father was a professor of history at Amherst College. The year of her birth was the same year as that of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), which she was destined to influence heavily. In her early years, Amherst was a rural town and her family took advantage of this by roaming the countryside and mountains of the area. Her mother had learned botany at Mount Holyoke College and her father was fond of the outdoors, so at an early age Margaret learned of the plants and animals of the region.

At the age of nine, she began keeping a written record of the birds she encountered. Her first entry was, prophetically, about a Song Sparrow, a species that eventually brought her fame. In her autobiography she records, "The most cherished Christmas present of my life came in 1895—Mabel Osgood Wright's Bird-Craft." (Nice 1979) At Amherst High School she took courses in mathematics, Latin, Greek, and French, starting her on a path that was to rely heavily on skill in foreign languages. As a teenager, Margaret studied the interactions of a dozen chickens that the family kept and established the concept of ‘pecking order' that was not to reach the scientific literature for decades. She began college at Mount Holyoke in 1901, which was interrupted by a year in Europe where she increased her skill in several European languages.

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