For the Birds Radio Program: Margaret Morse Nice's Song Sparrows

Original Air Date: May 11, 1988 Rerun Dates: May 11, 1989

Laura talks about one of our common birds and the woman who researched them.

Duration: 4′20″


(Recording of a Song Sparrow).

Song Sparrows are back in the Northland. These subtly handsome birds can be found just about anywhere near brushy undergrowth, so you can see them in towns and cities as well as in suburbs and country. They’re fairly easy to identify as far as sparrows go–they’re clearly sparrow-like, with breast streaking that seems to coalesce in a noticeable center spot. The only other sparrows with similar markings are the Fox Sparrow, which is much bigger and has a conspicuous rusty tail, and the Savannah Sparrow, which usually has a little yellow spot near its eye. The facial markings of Song Sparrows are distinctive, and with practice you can identify them in flight, even from a distance, by the way they pump their tail.

Song Sparrows are named for their characteristic and relentless singing. Even their scientific name, Melospiza melodia, means “melodious singing sparrow.” Every Song Sparrow sings a slightly different tune, and so individual birds can be identified accurately by their voices. Some people don’t consider their song particularly pleasant, but I like it. It invariably begins with two or three identical notes–sometimes musical, sometimes buzzy–and then breaks into a jumble. Henry David Thoreau translated it as “Maids! Maids! Maids! hang up your teakettle-ettle-ettle.” My first ornithology professor, a progressive sixties-type, heard the same song as “Peace! Peace! Peace! All my little children peace!”

(Recording of a Song Sparrow).

Some people hear the opening rhythm of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the first notes. But Beethoven himself never heard a Song Sparrow, since they’re found only in North America.

More is known about the Song Sparrow than just about any other species of bird in the world, mainly because of one amateur ornithologist, Margaret Morse Nice. She lived with her husband and three children in Ohio, where she researched and compiled the definitive life history study of the Song Sparrow literally in her own backyard. This study is still the standard by which all life history studies are measured. Nice trapped 870 different birds over the course of her study. She weighed and measured each one every time it entered her trap, giving her an abundance of data from which to draw important conclusions such as that birds weigh less in the morning than they do at the end of the day–a phenomenon that benefits many human dieters who time their daily duel with the scale for the most favorable hour. She also marked each bird with a colored band. She managed to follow and study 336 individual birds in detail. And one of them, which she named 4M, remained in her study area for seven years.

Today is the anniversary of the day Margaret Morse Nice followed 4M for a complete 24 hours. He spent 10 hours singing, 9 hours roosting, and 5 hours eating and doing other miscellaneous Song Sparrow activities, which apparently did not include watching TV, getting caught in rush hour traffic, or chatting on a cellular phone. Instead, he sang 2,305 complete songs on that celebrated May 11, 1935. Whether 4M’s day was more or less well spent than a typical human day is a question Margaret Morse Nice did not address. But following that one bird so diligently qualified her for immortality–at least in the minds of ornithologists. This summer, if your child tells you there’s nothing to do, you might suggest following a bird around for a while. There are worse ways to spend a day, or a lifetime.

(Recording of a Song Sparrow)