For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice

For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice

by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

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A first-rate ornithologist, Margaret Morse Nice (1883–1974) pioneered field studies on song sparrows and advocated for women’s active role in the sciences. Yet her nontraditional path toward scientific progress, as well as her gender, meant that she had to reach the highest pinnacles of achievement in order to gain prominence in her chosen field. Luckily for Nice, she was more than up to the challenge. In this engaging first book-length biography, Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie sheds light on Nice’s intellectual journey.

The wife of an academic, Nice pursued her own scholarly interests through self-study and by cultivating and creating work partnerships with colleagues. Talented, ambitious, and creative, she did not define herself solely through her role as wife and mother, nor did her family responsibilities deter her from her professional achievements. From her undergraduate study at Mount Holyoke College to her fieldwork in Norman, Oklahoma, her coauthorship of Birds of Oklahoma and subsequent correspondence with George Sutton to her later years in Columbus, Ohio, Nice’s career grew in tandem with her personal life—and in some cases, because of it. Although bridled by social constraints, her work spoke for itself: she produced more than 244 papers, articles, and published letters; seven books and book-length monographs; and 3,000 reviews. This voluminous and field-defining output earned her the respect of some of the most important biological scientists of the day, among them Konrad Lorenz and Ernst Mayr, who declared that she had “almost singlehandedly” initiated “a new era in American ornithology.”

For the Birds gives Nice her due recognition, lending compelling insight into her activism promoting conservation and preservation, her field methods, and the role of women in the history of science, particularly in ornithology. Nice’s life acts as a looking glass into the various challenges faced by fellow female pioneers, their resolve, and their contributions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806162492
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/06/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,063,923
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie is Emeritus Curator of the History of Science Collections at the University of Oklahoma and the author of several books on women in science, including Marie Curie: A Biography.

Read an Excerpt



On September 26, 1883, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), an offshoot of the Nuttall Ornithological Club of Cambridge, Massachusetts, had its first meeting in New York City. Later that same year, on December 6, Margaret Duncan Ely Morse and Anson Daniel Morse became parents for the fourth time when their daughter Margaret was born. Margaret later commented in jest that 1883 was an important year for ornithologists! Her birth kept the family's boy-girl, boy-girl ratio alive, as she joined Anson Ely, Sarah Duncan, and William Northrop. The family continued to expand with the advent of three more children after Margaret: Harold Ely, Katharine Duncan, and Edward Stiles.

Although there were no ornithologists in her background, the character of Margaret's ancestors influenced her future path, both positively and negatively. Both of her parents had long-standing roots in the New World. Her father was descended from an early settler, John Moss, who moved to New Haven Colony, Connecticut, in the early seventeenth century. The family name remained Moss until Margaret's grandfather Harmon changed it to Morse in the nineteenth century. Education was important to both her proximate and more distant relatives. Her father, Anson Daniel Morse, was an academic who spent forty years on the faculty of his alma mater Amherst College, where he was a professor of political science and history. He is best known for his participation in the nineteenth-century movement that emphasized political parties as the most effective tool for expressing the will of the people. As Calvin Coolidge's professor, he is credited with influencing the future president's political writings. More important for this biography, however, was his ability to stimulate his children's interest in books and nature. An avid gardener and a devoted explorer of the nearby wilderness, he encouraged his children in these pursuits.

The first recorded ancestor of Margaret's mother, Margaret Duncan Ely Morse, was Richard Ely, who emigrated from Plymouth in Devonshire, England, between 1660 and 1663. Although the Elys for the most part were farmers, several were involved in missionary work. Margaret's grandfather Zebulon Stiles Ely had a sister who traveled with her husband to India as a missionary. Zebulon's brother, who was an excellent scholar and linguist and a graduate of Yale University and the Princeton Theological Seminary, also had missionary leanings but died before he could accomplish his goal. Zebulon Ely himself was greatly attracted by missionary enterprises but also loved the outdoors. Margaret never knew her grandmother Sarah Duncan Ely, who had died of tuberculosis before she was born. The grandmother Margaret knew was "Aunty Stiles," Zebulon's second wife, Mary Post. Unlike her daughter Margaret, who showed little interest in organized religion, Margaret Duncan Ely Morse took to heart the religion of her relatives.

Margaret's mother, a humorless woman preoccupied with family, church, and community responsibilities, instilled a sense of duty in her children. As a typical Victorian woman, she engaged in domestic pursuits and expected her husband to play his role as a wage earner in the male public sphere. Apparently, she had no regrets that as a Mount Holyoke Seminary graduate she had no opportunity to use her education outside the home. As an adult Margaret began to appreciate her mother, but as a child and young woman she often resented her mother's acceptance of Victorian gender expectations. When her children were away from home, she wrote them innumerable "almost undecipherable" letters. Margaret absorbed some of her mother's characteristics as she grew into an adult, reading her letters aloud at the dinner table, and, as daughter Barbara noted, "We listened, though not alertly, for each letter contained only a recital of events attended, a lecture, a visit to an old family friend, a drive with some of her grandchildren. There was no portion of herself in her letters, no indication of her feelings."

Writing about her grandmother, Barbara gave an example of her lack of expressed emotion:

Once, when I suddenly realized that my grandmother had lived in the same town with Emily Dickinson, whose existence had become a matter of utmost excitement, I asked her somewhat tentatively what it had been like then. My grandmother was casual. "I used tosend a cake to Lavinia now and then. She was such a dear woman. Of course nobody ever saw her sister [Emily]." I waited hoping for more, a crumb for my adolescent devotion. My grandmother picked up her mending. That was all.

Margaret seems to have had a much closer relationship with her maternal grandparents than with her father's parents. Her grandfather Zebulon had a country home in Lyme, Connecticut, where Margaret and her siblings were free to roam during the summers. These summers, as Margaret noted in her autobiography, were filled by wandering with her siblings, cousins, and her aunt's dogs through fields and pastures, "sometime with pails for blackberries, but usually just for fun." However, even though she did not realize it at the time, she was learning to appreciate the outdoors. "The wide spaces, uninhabited by man, and our own freedom to explore, made of Lyme a magic place. All our expeditions were on foot or with horses. Thus, we gained an intimacy with our surroundings that is impossible nowadays with our incredibly speeded-up transportation that reduces one's impressions to a blur."

Nice and the Nature-Study Movement

Nice's early interest in nature mirrored changes in attitudes toward natural history during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As historian Mark Barrow points out, a backlash occurred in the generations after the Civil War, largely because of the transformative social, economic, and technological modifications that shifted the United States from a rural, agricultural nation into more of an industrial, urban behemoth. A similar reaction had begun earlier in late-eighteenth-century Europe in the form of romanticism as a protest against the extreme rationalism and mechanism of the Enlightenment. The transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) represented the unique American iteration of romanticism. The philosophical basis of transcendentalism translated into the "back-to-nature" movement in the United States and a new interest in conservation, collecting, taxidermy, and the formation of societies to further these interests.

Children as well as adults were the beneficiaries of the new romanticism. The literature of the back-to-nature movement took many directions. The idea that the glory of God was reflected in nature spawned quasi-religious writings that were deemed suitable for children. Others wrote of nature as a teacher who provided ethical lessons to teach children. Some authors, however, inspired children to observe the habits of animals while providing excellent information. Even stories that did not appear to have a didactic function but stimulated a child's imagination were common.

As historian of science Sally Kohlstedt reports in her research on the nature-study movement from 1890 to 1932, the idea that even very young children could and should learn about the natural world through hands-on experience with their local environment was pervasive in the early decades of this period. Advocates also agreed that books that encouraged a child's imagination about nature were acceptable. Margaret and her siblings unconsciously participated in the goals of this movement.

Books on Nature

Both Margaret's mother and father stressed the importance of reading as an important activity for their children. Books on nature were an important part of Margaret's childhood. Charles Kingsley's Water Babies was one of her favorites, but the "most cherished Christmas present" of her life was Mabel Osgood Wright's Bird-Craft (1895). Wright was the author of twenty-five works of fiction and nonfiction, the associate editor of Bird-Lore magazine (now Audubon), an avid conservationist, and an accomplished landscape photographer. She was also the force behind the establishment of an early privately owned bird sanctuary in the United States. Although Wright's life unfolded in a very different way from that of Nice, they both found ways to navigate society's expectations for a young ambitious woman.

Mabel Wright (1859–1934), the youngest daughter of Samuel Osgood and Ellen Haswell Murdoch, was born in New York City. Her father, a Unitarian pastor who later became an Episcopalian priest, was a major figure in his daughter's life. Although considered liberal for his time, he held traditional Victorian beliefs about the proper role of women. He influenced Mabel in her choice of career, marriage partner, and place of residence. She had originally planned to study medicine at Cornell University but succumbed to and accepted her father's views as to the proper sphere of women. Samuel Osgood wrote, "If young women wish to be lawyers, preachers, physicians, or merchants we would put no harsher obstacles before them than our honest opinion that such is not their providential career, whilst we would do everything in our power to throw open to their pursuit those spheres of action most congenial with their nature."

Not only did Wright give up any desire to become a physician, she was almost viciously critical of women who made that choice. Late in life she wrote a novel, The Woman Errant: Being Some Chapters from the Wonder Book of Barbara, the Commuter's Wife, in which she wrote a thinly disguised and supposedly fictional account of the life of a woman physician, excoriating this woman's choices. The physician described in her book so closely resembled Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842–1906) that there was little doubt she was the model.

Mabel's British husband, James Osborne Wright, a rare book dealer, commuted to work in New York City, and Mabel often found herself alone during the summers in their house in Fairfield, Connecticut. She spent much of her time roaming the byways of the Fairfield area. Her love affair with nature began at that time, connecting her to the back-to-nature movement. She began to write books on nature and specifically on birds, first anonymously for the New York Times and the New York Evening Post, combining an almost sentimental view of nature with notably accurate observations. She collected these articles into what became her first book, Friendship of Nature (1894). This volume combined poetic language with an accurate representation of the local landscape and its inhabitants. From this beginning she continued publishing and in 1895 produced a field guide, Birdcraft, which included descriptions of two hundred native birds and won her praise from ornithologists. The ornithologist Frank M. Chapman (1864–1945) admired her writing style and encouraged her to contribute to the magazine Bird-Lore. Wright's writing career blossomed, and she wrote numerous nonfiction books and children's books (including the popular Tommy-Anne books) and even tried her hand at fiction (not very successfully). Her work in nature education, including the founding of the Connecticut Audubon Society, was well received.

Birdcraft's colored bird drawings caught Margaret's imagination, and she credited it with being the "first great step in my ornithological education." Another book, of an entirely different kind, equally influenced her development as a naturalist. She explained that while playing in the attic she had found a tattered, coverless pamphlet missing the information usually found on a title page. The pamphlet announced on the first page that it was to be "An Artificial Key to the Birds of Amherst." It was a three-part work: "Birds of Regular and Certain Appearance in Amherst at the Proper Season," "Birds of Irregular and Uncertain Appearance in Amherst," and "Birds Extremely Rare or Accidental in the Country." Margaret later found the missing publication information. The entire pamphlet was titled An Artificial Key to the Birds of Amherst and Vicinity (1887), written by Hubert L. Clark when he was only seventeen years old. These two books plus John B. Grant's Our Common Birds and How to Know Them (1891) formed the basis of Margaret's childhood study of birds. From Birdcraft she gained general information on birds and then applied this information to Clark's list. She corrected Clark on the economic importance of various birds, physically dismantled his book, interleaved her own observations, and reassembled it with a cover she had made.

Margaret and her favorite brother, Harold, explored the areas around their home. He was her companion in her outdoor adventures and also enjoyed discovering and identifying birds. However, this companionship came to an abrupt end with Harold's drowning death in a stream near Amherst in August 1896, when Margaret was twelve years old. The entire family grieved after this tragedy, but it affected each family member in different ways. Literal religious beliefs comforted Margaret's mother and brought a kind of resignation, while her father blamed himself for being too busy to play with his son — "earthly opportunities forever missed." It was a family custom to sing hymns each Sunday night, and Anson Morse established a tradition to close the songfest with "Now the Day Is Over" in memory of Harold. In contrast to her parents and grandparents, ten-year-old Margaret found religion to be of little consolation. Her sorrow was especially poignant, and she turned "to birds with a passion that was not to be matched for many years." This fervor resulted in her second surviving diary, from October 25 to December 6, 1896.

Four or five months later, time had tempered some of Margaret's grief. For Christmas, she asked for any book by another of her favorite nature authors, Olive Thorne Miller. Olive Thorne Miller was the pen name of Harriet Mann Miller (1831–1918), who wrote a series of children's stories that were mostly about animals. Although much of her children's fiction did not remain popular over the years, her nature sketches for children and adults are still read. After Miller's four children grew up, she became an avid bird watcher; this period lasted from 1880 until her death in 1918. Her treatment of birds was often anthropomorphic, but most of her factswere accurate, reflecting a close observation of their habits. Miller's publications were important in stimulating popular interest in natural history.

The Christmas of 1896 did not bring Margaret the book by Miller that she really wanted. Rather than the desired essays on birds, her mother had purchased Miller's Four-Handed Folk (1896), a book about monkeys. Her resourceful mother found a way to alleviate Margaret's disappointment by suggesting that she trade books with her sister Katharine, who had received a book by Margaret's other beloved author, Mabel Osgood Wright. The book she received in trade, Tommy-Anne and the Three Hearts (1896), made up for her disappointment. This book was very different from the one that had whetted her enthusiasm for birds. Still, she found Tommy-Anne fascinating, because the heroine was a nature-loving girl who had been given magic spectacles that allowed her to talk with wild creatures in their own languages. Enjoyable as this book was, she later realized that it had led her away from serious ornithology.

Leaving talking animals behind, Margaret returned to the accurate observations she had recorded in her notes written on Birds of Amherst. She also produced a small booklet titled The Fates and Fortunes of Fruit-Acre Birds. In this little book, thirteen-year-old Margaret recorded her observations of twelve nests of Robins, Chipping Sparrows, and Least Flycatchers on the family's land. She reported that out of forty-five eggs laid, six produced fledglings.


School offered few challenges for Margaret. She and her siblings attended kindergarten for two years, followed by five years of a private elementary school. Even though nature study was integrated into many schools by the time Margaret was in elementary school, her teachers were more old-fashioned. "Miss Perkins and gentle, gray-haired Miss Hills" were neither aware nor interested in becoming aware of the new nature-study movement. In the seventh grade, Margaret entered public school, where she continued through high school. The ninth grade, although not academically challenging, allowed her to be more creative and follow her own interests. In Margaret's case, this meant observing and writing about birds. When bored with school she amused herself by producing a newspaper and writing a book. She attributed the book's authorship to a bird named Hermit Peck-wood, a "conceited Hairy Woodpecker." Although she regretted it later, the villains in her stories were predators, a prejudice she had absorbed from Birdcraft and TommyAnne.


Excerpted from "For the Birds"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
1. Family Background and Childhood,
2. Adventures in Self-Reliance: Mount Holyoke College and Clark University,
3. Move to Oklahoma,
4. The Making of a Career,
5. The Birds of Oklahoma,
6. A Second Edition of The Birds of Oklahoma and the Beginning of a New Project,
7. Publishing the Song Sparrow Research,
8. A Population Study of the Song Sparrow,
9. The Windy City: Move to Chicago,
10. Preparing for Song Sparrow, Volume Two,
11. "Dear Editor",
12. European Ethologists, Ornithologists, and World War II,
13. The Behavior of the Song Sparrow: Problems and Solutions,
14. Postwar Life,
15. The Last Years,
Works by Margaret Morse Nice,

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