Friday, July 17, 2015

Margaret Morse Nice, The Watcher at the Nest

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Song Sparrow, Bryant Park
Song Sparrow, Bryant Park

Every year, we go to a speculative literature convention near Boston called Readercon, driven up by friends who are also birders. This year's Readercon was last weekend, and as always we got a little birdwatching in on the trip, and I'll have a post about that soon. But while at the con, we went to dinner at a little Korean BBQ place, next door to which is a used book superstore called Used Book Superstore. Well, of course we went there. What do you take us for?

So I picked up a battered copy of a little book called The Watcher at the Nest, which would be a good title for a horror novel but is actually about Song Sparrows. The author, Margaret Morse Nice, pioneered life-history studies of birds in an era that was mostly concerned with finding and cataloging species. The Wilson Ornithological Society gives an award in her honor.

This very charming book is an account of her observations of the Song Sparrows who nested near her home in Columbus, Ohio during the eight years she lived there. Here's her description of the life of a male Song Sparrow dealing with the stress of nesting season with one brood just fledged and a nest full of eggs for the second batch:

Life for the Song Sparrow husband and father in the midst of the nesting season is a complicated affair at best; he has an incubating wife to protect, troublesome neighbors to watch, a brood of young hopefuls to feed, and his own living to get, not to mention keeping himself and his family out of the clutches of prowling enemies. The reason that he can successfully cope with such a multiplicity of details is that he does one thing at a time with all his might, and in the next minute, perhaps, turns his whole attention to something else.

That's an approach worth considering for all of us.

Nice's work in Columbus resulted in an immense two-volume study Studies in the life history of the Song Sparrow. I need to read that, I think; also her biography Research is a passion with me.

Nice called the area "Interpont" because it was between two bridges, and thanks to an excellent post at a blog called Bee's First Appearance, I found the location on Google Maps and then found an eBird hotspot for Tuttle Park, which is basically exactly the area she explored.

It's pretty decently birdy there, still. On an image search it seems a bit more manicured than Margaret Morse Nice would have liked:

Weeds were one of the glories of Interpont--the giant ragweeds that towered above one's head, the thistles that offered snug homes to Goldfinches, the incredible cow parsnips in May, the asters and goldenrods that wove bright patterns along the ditches. Despised by many, weeds are in reality an important element in our landscape, holding the precious soil, providing nesting places for many birds, extending hospitality to migrating hosts of native sparrows that find upon them a harvest of insects, and finally affording food and shelter to those hardy birds that brave the northern winter, Let us therefore leave weeds and shrubs and tangled vines wherever we can along roadsides and fence rows, for where such things are, there will birds be also.

Preach it!

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