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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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The Song Sparrow Lady

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Timing is everything, they say, in love and war and about everything else. So it was, as things turned out, the timing was all wrong for me to have met Margaret Morse Nice. But it was close. Well, fairly close. Maybe off by a year or two.

I became mesmerized by wild birds one April afternoon when I was 15 years old and in the ninth grade of what we used to call junior high school. This was approximately two or three years after Mrs. Nice completed her monumental study on song sparrows. As I have mentioned, my family lived in a house facing the south side of The Ohio State University campus.

Mrs. Nice lived half a dozen blocks north of the campus. In 1940, I commenced working after school at the first Big Bear supermarket in Columbus, which was located in an old skating rink located on Lane Avenue at the very edge - actually within - Interpont, Mrs. Nice's study area, and within hailing distance of her home.

A fantasy I long held was that the famous lady might have come into the store, been in the produce department where I worked on weekend nights, that I actually might have helped her pick out some good looking oranges and grapefruits and dropped them in the bag I held open. I would fantasize that I might actually have brushed her hand. But, alas. I don't believe it ever happened. If I am not mistaken, Mrs. Nice and her husband moved to Chicago about 1939.

But from 1940 to 1942, I frequently birded my way home from North High School along the west bank of the Olentangy River, which is directly opposite the principal parts of Interpont. Sometimes I even went home on her side of the river, hiking across dikes and along brushy fishermen's trails within a stone's throw of where she had lived, probably looking at some of the very same song sparrows she had made famous.

Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, with whom Mrs. Nice studied in Austria during the summer of 1938, wrote: "Her paper on the song sparrow was, to the best of my knowledge, the first long-term field investigation of the life of any free-living wild animal."

Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow was originally published in Germany's Journal fur Ornithologie and subsequently, she received international acclaim. In 1937 and 1943, the complete work was published in two volumes by the Linnaean Society of New York. Dover editions of the books are still in print.

Volume I of her work dealt with vital statistics: weights, territories, migrations, percentiles of nesting success, and the survival of individuals. Volume II concentrated on behavior, including daily activities, dominance, songs, call notes, mating, defense of young, and many other traits and characteristics.

Mrs. Nice's work represented a pioneering effort of the first magnitude in advancing the importance of comparative behavior studies. She wrote that "each male song sparrow is a unique personality. When he dies (his) songs are lost forever." She trapped and banded her subjects and kept copious notes. Her goal was to learn everything possible about their daily lives.

In the words of Frank Graham Jr., writing in Audubon magazine, Nice had dragged her more "legitimate" colleagues out of the listing stage and into modern ethological studies. As a result, during her lifetime, honors flooded in on her.

Mrs. Nice received some assistance and advice from Lawrence E. Hicks and Edward S. Thomas, but she was denied membership in Columbus' all-male Wheaton Club. She died in 1974.

Not to worry, Mrs. Nice, I love you.

The house where the Nice's lived at the west end of Patterson Avenue in Columbus, Ohio in 2002.
University-area dormitories in the rear were built in more recent years.

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