Birds & Birding

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

August 8, 2016

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Song sparrow. Photo © M J Kilpatrick

 “The land was defended and won by age-old ceremonies and fierce battle…. Their conflicts with each other and their neighbors, their luck with their wives and devotion to their babies… the fortunes of their sons and daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren—all these were watched season in and season out until tragedy overtook them.” 

Surprisingly, this passage is not referring to Game of Thrones. It instead describes the lives of song sparrows!

Renowned ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice (1883-1974) wrote this in the opening pages of her book The Watcher at the Nest (1939), which recounts her experiences studying song sparrows in her Ohio backyard in the 1930s. She conducted these groundbreaking studies at home while raising a family of five children.

The techniques that she established for monitoring a nesting bird population became the template for all subsequent studies and are still in widespread use today.

Map of Westeros, I mean Nice's backyard study site.
Map of Westeros, I mean Nice’s backyard study site.

Nice’s key innovation was to track the lives of a population of individual song sparrows over many years – a longitudinal study.

Nice lamented that ornithological knowledge at the time was incomplete and occasionally false. As she began her song sparrow investigations, she assessed the sketchy details reported for song sparrow as “meager enough information and all of it wrong”.

The literature was rife with error. For example, through some sleuthing she discovered that much of the reported (and inaccurate) incubation times for American birds had been carried forward from author to author over the decades without critique.

She ultimately discovered that the originating author estimated these times not from observation but by inferring them from the observations and speculations of Greek philosopher Aristotle!

In 1929, when Nice’s song sparrow work began, ornithology was emerging from an era dominated by collection of specimens. Nineteenth and early 20th century ornithologists focused on species inventory, taxonomy and distribution. Behavior and ecology were not yet receiving much attention.

The idea of territoriality in birds was a new concept and Nice set out to study it.

She quickly learned that it was war out there in the rose hedge. And having uniquely identifiable birds allowed her to make sense of the melees.

Color-banded song sparrow. Photo © Amy Strauss
Color-banded song sparrow. Photo © Amy Strauss

The unique identities were made possible by the use of color bands that allowed her to mark each bird with a unique combination of bands. Celluloid color bands were already in use to mark chickens on poultry farms, but only a few halting efforts has been made to use the technique to study wild birds.

After reading a scientific article that reported on an experiment that used colored bands to individually mark chickadees and nuthatches, Nice immediately applied the technique to her backyard song sparrows.

The chickadee paper listed several commercial suppliers of celluloid, but noted that material “of the proper thickness can also be obtained from baby-rattles and other toys purchased at ten-cent stores.”

Nice followed this advice and made her color bands from “brightly colored children’s toys.”

Territories map from Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow.
Territories map from Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow.

Nice began with intensive study of two neighboring pairs of birds. Over the next seven years, she expanded to working with dozens of pairs across a 60 acre area adjoining her home in Columbus, Ohio.

The song sparrows in her backyard were engaged in a constant struggle to establish and maintain territories, while keeping a close eye on competitors and predators. Nice documented nearly every aspect of song sparrow life, from migration and survival to nesting biology.

It’s not so much that she made a particularly dramatic discovery as much as she demonstrated how to thoroughly document the life history of an animal by collecting a large amount of data across many study subjects. This approach is standard today but was revolutionary at the time.

life-history-book-cover

A reviewer of her crowning achievement Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow (1941) stated that the work presented “more information than we have ever had about any single species, more thoroughly analyzed and more completely integrated with current knowledge and modern concepts” than anything previously published.

How did Nice find herself at the top of the research world while staying at home raising a family?

She was initially on an ambitious trajectory in science, completing a master’s degree on diet of bobwhite quail as one of only two woman graduate students at Clark University in Massachusetts. Although she wanted to keep going for a PhD, family pressures and marriage led her toward a role at home raising kids while her husband pursued an academic career.

Nice was determined to continue conducting scientific research. Initially, she studied her own young children and published papers on child development and language acquisition. She eventually returned to bird study, first by completing The Birds of Oklahoma (1924) in collaboration with her husband (and with her kids, who joined them on camping trips to do field work).

Nice,-her-husband-and-daughter-in-the-field-in-1953-photo-H.-Albert-Hochbaum-from-the-book-research-is-a-passion-with-me
Nice, her husband and daughter in the field in a 1953 photo by H. Albert Hochbaum from the book Research is a Passion with Me

She balanced her time between research and responsibilities at home by being ruthlessly efficient in executing household chores. Establishing her song sparrow study site right outside her back door maximized her available research time.

Margaret Morse Nice rejected the narrative that she was housewife first and a scientist second, and that her standing as a scientist should be placed in that context.

In his obituary of Nice, colleague Milton Trautman quoted Nice as saying more than once, “I am not a housewife; I am a trained zoologist.”

While she was an outsider in the sense that she did not have a formal professional position and lacked funding to pursue her studies, Nice participated very actively in ornithological societies and meetings, was a power networker, and authored a regular feature in an ornithology journal that reviewed current literature. Over her career, she published at least 250 scientific articles including seven book-length research monographs.

Margaret Morse Nice lying flat in the grass to study a nest of baby field sparrows. Photo taken by Al Fenn circa 1956
Margaret Morse Nice lying flat in the grass to study a nest of baby field sparrows. Photo taken by Al Fenn circa 1956

And she was widely recognized for her work.

Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz called Nice’s song sparrow work a “major breakthrough in the methods of studying animal behavior.” Ernst Mayr of Harvard University called it the “finest piece of life history work ever done” and observed that she “almost single-handedly initiated a new era in American ornithology.” This is high praise coming from two people who themselves were responsible for revolutionary scientific advances in animal behavior and evolutionary theory.

Upon publication of her song sparrow research, Nice received the highest award in American ornithology, the Brewster Medal.

The title of her 1979 autobiography said it all: Research Is a Passion With MeMargaret Morse Nice’s commitment to her research despite her other considerable responsibilities is an inspiration for us today.

Her life shows us it is still possible to make an outsized contribution even as an outsider. This is encouraging in an era when there aren’t enough academic jobs to go around. More and more people are, by necessity, seeking non-traditional career paths. This can mean participating in the “gig economy” or working from home as we attempt to balance career and family.

Margaret Morse Nice shows us that, with determination, you can make the time to pursue your passion.

Fortunately, there is still plenty of work (and song sparrows!) right out our back doors.

Joe Smith

Joe Smith, PhD, explores the lives of the birds around us by sharing insights from scientific research. As an ecologist for a New Jersey-based conservation services company, he helps to restore coastal ecosystems and the migratory birds that depend on them. Joe lives in the birding hotspot of Cape May, NJ and has done field research with birds throughout the U.S. and Latin America. He writes about nature in his backyard at www.smithjam.com. More from Joe

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9 comments

  1. Thank you for an inspiring article, Joe! Margaret MorseNice showed us that women can, indeed, have it all!

  2. I am so pleased to read this informative essay about Margaret Nice. I had always hoped that she would not be forgotten in this age of high tech biology. I had the good fortune to meet her when I was a young scientist and found her work inspiring. I sometimes wonder why more women who have scientific training but do not have a professional position in ornithology do not engage in some form of field research that requires minimal funding (but incredible dedication!).

  3. I’m pleased to see you spotlighting Margaret Morse Nice’s groundbreaking work. She was one of several women ornithologists that I covered in my 1991 book Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists, published by Texas A & M University Press.

  4. Fascinating and very inspiring article about Margaret Nice. Thanks Joe!

  5. Very interesting! Had never heard of her, not that I’m much into the ornithology world. Nonetheless, thoroughly inspiring. Especially, I think, for all citizen scientists (or should I say scientist first?).