The Margaret Morse Nice Medal Lecture is awarded annually to an individual who exemplifies her scientific curiosity, creativity and insight, her concern for the education of young and amateur ornithologists, and her leadership as an innovator and mentor.
This year’s recipient of the Margaret Morse Nice Medal - Don Kroodsma - personifies these characteristics … The Wilson Ornithological Society recognizes Don for his lifetime of outstanding work on bird song.
As Don has written on his blog, “It was the spring of 1968, my last semester in [Hope] College, when I became hooked on birds in general [i think a singing Marsh Wren], and a few months later on birdsong in particular.” After earning his Ph.D. at Oregon State University, Don was a Postdoctoral Fellow and then an Assistant Professor at Rockefeller University. In 1980, he moved to University of Massachusetts at Amherst (a mile from where MMN had grown up), where he remained until he retired (early) in 2003. During his academic career, Don says, “I asked question after question, about wrens and chickadees and warblers and sparrows and flycatchers and almost any bird who sang.” And he published: 75 academic articles, more than 25 popular articles, several books … Don chose to retire early so that he could celebrate birdsong full-time.
In her speech presenting the medal, WOS past-president E. Dale Kennedy said, "I want to get back to two topics that connect Don and Margaret Morse Nice (apart from the Amherst connection). In 1915, Margaret Morse Nice published a paper, “The development of a child’s vocabulary in relation to environment,” based on her observations of her daughter Constance at ages 18 months, 3 years, and 4 years. Don Kroodsma’s dissertation was, “Singing behavior of the Bewick’s Wren: development, dialects, population structure, and geographical variation.” He studied the development of language in his daughter and compared it with development of song in songbirds (“Cousin Songbird” in Birder’s World in 1993).
On March 15, 1928, Margaret wrote in her journal, “The chorus of song is bewildering in its beauty and its sense of joy… What a blessing it is to be alive this bright morning of early spring…” That same sense of joy is expressed by Don in his Preface to The Singing Life of Birds (2005): “Somewhere, always, the sun is rising, and somewhere, always, the birds are singing.”
About the Margaret Nice Morse Medal
In 1888 the Wilson Ornithological Club was founded, and Margaret Morse turned five years old in Amherst, Massachusetts, where her father taught history at Amherst College. In 1891 she received her first real bird book, Our Common Birds and How to Know Them, and in 1896 she wrote and published “Fates and fortunes of Fruit-acre birds.” She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1906 and, a year later, entered Clark University as one of only two women graduate students. She earned a Master of Science degree in 1910 for the first comprehensive study of diet in the Northern Bobwhite. In 1908 she married Blaine Nice, a graduate student in physiology also at Clark University. In 1913 they moved to Norman, Oklahoma, where she wrote “The Birds of Oklahoma,” published in 1931. In 1927 the family moved to Columbus, Ohio, where Margaret studied Song Sparrows in her yard and neighboring vacant lots along the Olentangy River.
Margaret Morse Nice joined the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1907 and attended her first meeting in 1908. In 1920 she was the only woman to present a paper. In 1921 she joined the Wilson Ornithological Club and attended her first Wilson meeting in 1927 at which time she reported on the nesting of the Myrtle Warbler. In 1933 she founded the Recent Literature section of Bird-Banding, now the Journal of Field Ornithology and wrote 1800 reviews over the next nine years, many of these commenting on articles written in foreign languages of which she spoke five fluently. In 1935 she was elected Second Vice-President of the Wilson Ornithological Society and succeeded to its Presidency in 1937, the same year in which she was elected a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union, only the second woman so honored. 1937 was also the year in which the first volume of her Studies in the life history of the Song Sparrow appeared. In 1939 she published her popular account “The watcher at the nest.” In 1943, she published the second volume of “Studies in the life history of the Song Sparrow” and was awarded the Brewster Medal for her landmark life history studies. She wrote several important reviews of territoriality in 1941, of incubation periods in 1954, and of behavioral development in precocial birds in 1962. She was awarded honorary doctorates by Mount Holyoke College in 1954 and Elmira College in 1962.
One of her close friends and colleagues, Nobel-laureate Konrad Lorenz offers the following personal reminiscence:
“Margaret Morse Nice was a naturalist in the truest sense of the word. She combined a poet’s appreciation of nature’s beauty with a scientist’s analytical mind. Her simple and artless description of natural things often achieved an effect reminiscent of Thoreau’s writing. Her greatest gift was an infinite joy in observation for its own sake which, unbiased and free from any hypotheses or prejudice, is the very best basis for the understanding of animal behaviour.
Another outstanding trait of her character was her engaging simplicity … a property which is rarely found in combination with an intelligence such as hers. Her attitude towards nature remained … that of a child’s wide-eyed wonder, combined with a childlike curiosity, which is exactly what a scientist’s attitude ought to be, but so very seldom is.”