This article tells a history of bird banding—the practice of catching and affixing birds with durable bands with the intent of tracking their movements and behavior—by focusing on the embodied aspects of this method in field ornithology. Going beyond a straightforward, institutional history of bird banding, the article uses the writings of biologists in the US Bureau of Biological Survey and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to describe the historical practices of bird banding and the phenomenological experience of banding, both for the scientists and the birds (via their banding interlocutors). The article then presents the career and research of Margaret Morse Nice as an exemplar of the embodied practice of banding for the purposes of understanding bird behavior. Finally the article uses the example and heritage of Nice as well as banders and scientists like her to discuss a phenomenological approach common to any number of observation-based field biology disciplines (including, especially, ethology) and deep connections between human and animal subjectivities. And these connections, in turn, have implications for the environmental humanities, environmental conservation, and the ethics of knowing the nonhuman world.
The April 1, 1912 edition of Country Life in America announced “A New Method in Bird Study,” succinctly capturing the methods and hopes of a recent ornithological innovation—bird banding. The article is worth quoting at some length:
The American Bird-Banding Association was formed in 1909 to introduce a plan which has already brought surprising results in England. The method employed is the placing of inscribed metal bands on the legs of any birds, young or old, that can be captured unhurt, and setting them free again. If ever a banded bird should be recovered, definite knowledge of its travels is obtained. The bands are supplied to any applicants, but it is earnestly desired that banding be done only by reliable persons, who realize the serious import of the work. The simplest question of bird migration can be solved in no way but by marking individual birds. . . . The feeling that the band may injure the bird is giving way. The facts refute it. The birds do not seem frightened at the operation.1
In this passage the author describes the chief dynamics that have defined the practice and philosophy of bird banding during the past century: institutional support, reliable techniques, and expert assessment of what constitutes not only a “reliable person” but also a reliably unaffected bird.
In this article, I tell a history of bird banding by focusing on the experiences of banders as related in both professional and amateur published literature—journals and circulars created by US institutions such as the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Bureau of Biological Survey as well as regional avocational banding associations. Institutional support for banding, and the studies of behavior and migration that it enabled, created the baseline conditions for avian research—providing bands, centralizing data collection, and coordinating and disseminating results and best practices. This baseline of support, however, is a necessary but insufficient perspective from which to understand the epistemological and ontological significance of bird banding. As historian Etienne S. Benson has pointed out, organized banding was a balance between the need for a centralized data-gathering and processing center, concerned mostly with large-scale migration of game birds, and the needs of enthusiastic local and regional banders interested in small-scale bird movements, individual life histories, and bird behavior.2 While he convincingly shows that this balance decidedly shifted away from amateurs and life history and toward FWS professionals banding migratory game fowl after WW II, I am interested in the ways that bird banding has always relied—and continues to do so—on an understanding of bird behavior in intimate, phenomenological terms regardless of whether the research is professional or avocational.
Christopher Sellers, drawing on the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (among others), has called for an embodied environmental history: history that examines the ways in which “human and extrahuman realities are apprehended ‘through the body.’”3 Bird banding offers just such an opportunity—to tell a history of wildlife science and conservation through the ways in which banders of various stripes sensed and understood their own practices as well as the experiences of the birds themselves. In this way, banding also offers what Benson elsewhere calls the trace of the birds’ lives: “Human writing in a world where human life is so intricately intertwined with nonhuman life will inevitably reveal the traces of the other.”4 If this is true of human writing in general, how much more so when scientists deliberately and systematically intertwine their lives with birds in the act of banding and proceed to write their methods and results for other scientists and the general public? As I show below, this scientific writing was grounded in the intersubjective experience of bird banding and phenomenological descriptions of bird behavior.
As discussed in detail in the concluding section, a robust literature exists on embodied, relational epistemologies and ontologies between humans and nonhuman nature—in environmental humanities, animal studies, STS, and the history and philosophy of science, to name just a few. In recent years, in fact, this journal has published a special issue on multispecies studies, cross-disciplinary approaches to “the multitudes of lively agents that bring one another into being.”5 Much of this work is explicitly phenomenological, drawing on the philosophical tradition of embodied knowledge from Merleau-Ponty and others.6 Whether explicitly or implicitly phenomenological, I argue that bird banding and contemporary forms of both ethology and multispecies studies share a suite of practical techniques as well as intellectual and ethical commitments related to close observation, intersubjectivity, and affective bonds between observer and observed.
In the second and final sections, I discuss the work of Margaret Morse Nice as an exemplar of the complicated admixture of sciences and senses involved in bird banding in the early to mid-twentieth century, and as an ethologist who explicitly utilized a “phenomenological method” in her work that prefigures later ethology and humanities work after the “animal turn.” Nice, an amateur bander and ornithologist in the sense of lacking a PhD and an institutional home, nevertheless leveraged her talents, training, and scientific networks to become a leading voice in transatlantic ornithology and ethology by mid-century.7 Recognized in her time as an expert in bird behavior, a key figure in early ethology, and an innovator in banding technique, she nevertheless is rarely mentioned today alongside her more well-known, male colleagues such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, or Julian Huxley. There are, of course, a few exceptions. Mark Barrow has discussed her importance in the history of ornithology and her connections to Ernst Mayr; Gregg Mitman and Richard Burkhardt paint Nice as a vitally important amateur in the history of ethology; Benson has pointed out the ways in which Nice pushed back against the use of bird banding solely for large-scale data collection on game birds; and Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie has most recently given us an exquisitely detailed, full-length biography.8
The example and heritage of Nice, as well as banders and scientists like her, shows a phenomenological approach common to any number of observation-based field biology disciplines, in which the observer develops an embodied, empathetic understanding of animals’ subjective experience. Scholars have tended to portray mid-century behavioral sciences as barren of intersubjectivity—ethology in the time of Tinbergen, whose four aims of ethology left no room for the exploration of animals’ inner lives.9 A focus here on Nice, the interpretive frameworks she adapted, and the explicitly phenomenological method she employed, helps to correct this portrayal. Nice sat at the crossroads of “classical ethology,” ornithology, and natural history, and helped to maintain what she called “fellow-feeling” with the birds she studied (and encouraged others to do the same). And the phenomenological method deployed in her ethological studies—involving extensive, close observation of birds, imagining oneself in the animal’s subjective experience, and developing an affective connection with them—maps onto the practices of bird banding and a wide range of contemporary humanities and social science work. Recentering Nice, therefore, both enriches our understanding of twentieth-century biology and offers inspiration to scholars in the present exploring more-than-human worlds and ethics.
Bird Banding: Institutions and Embodied Experience
Systematic bird banding—affixing metal or plastic “bands” to birds to track their movements over time—seems to have emerged in several places in North America around the turn of the twentieth century.10 For the purposes of briefly tracing the institutional lineage of banding in the US, the work of Leon Cole is a logical starting point. Cole began local banding efforts with members of the New Haven Bird Club, suggesting larger-scale banding to the Congress of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU, now the American Ornithological Society) in November 1908. By the end of 1909 about one thousand birds had been banded and members of the AOU organized the American Bird Banding Association (ABBA). In the wake of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, banding became an official ornithological pursuit organized and licensed under the auspices of the US Bureau of Biological Survey. The Biological Survey took over banding records, supplies, and authority from ABBA in 1920. The Biological Survey solicited participation, issued prestamped aluminum bands, and created a number of documents (discussed below) to disseminate banding methods and results. The Biological Survey was merged into the newly created US FWS in 1940. The first twenty-five years of banding, begun under the Biological Survey and continued under the FWS, saw more than 4.5 million birds banded.11
While the institutional history of bird banding is one of slow professionalization—bending the practice toward the monitoring of game fowl on wildlife refuges—regional, and largely avocational, banding organizations also played a pivotal role in field ornithology. Perhaps chief among these organizations was the New England Bird Banding Association, begun in 1922 and renamed the Northeastern Bird Banding Association (NEBBA) in 1924. NEBBA published its own bulletin the following year, which became the nationally distributed journal Bird-Banding in 1930. Over the course of the twentieth century, NEBBA became the Association of Field Ornithologists, and Bird-Banding became the Journal of Field Ornithology.12 In this and the following section, I focus on the extensive publications of birdbanders—amateur and professional, public and private—as a way to track not solely the ebbs and flows of institutional support for banders and banding but also to describe a rich catalog of the experiences of banding. Institutional support was important, of course, as birdbanders and wildlife researchers attested at the time, but beneath the surface of banding supplies, techniques, and number crunching was a world of human and nonhuman interactions that lend themselves to an embodied environmental history of banding and a focus on intersubjective experience.13 As Sellers suggests, describing these interactions as fundamentally phenomenological approaches to understanding nature helps to reveal the embodied experience of perceiving bird behavior—perceptions that underpinned banding and ethological work. As David Abram describes it, “By asserting that perception, phenomenologically considered, is inherently participatory, we mean that perception always involves, at is most intimate level, the experience of an active interplay, of coupling, between the perceiving body and that which it perceives.”14 Together, that is, birds and banders have worked together during the twentieth century to shape our knowledge of wildlife movement and behavior.15
This approach jibes with what other environmental historians and historians of science have mentioned in passing about the practices of naturalists and early ecologists. Robert Kohler, for example, notes that for natural history collectors “knowing the animals was an empathic ability to think or even act like the animals themselves,” and that “data had in effect to be lived and experienced, by the ecologist, as resident animals experienced the events.”16 But to expand these ideas in explicitly phenomenological terms I find it useful to distinguish between three kinds of embodied perceptions: (1) “intimate study” and descriptions of bird behavior that required a phenomenological imagination of what the animal was experiencing—sympathetic observation in the words of Nice and her contemporary in comparative psychology David Katz;17 (2) the implicit understanding of bird behavior that underlies trapping and banding; and (3) the affection and anthropomorphism (critical or not) that seemed to come along with such methods.18 All three were present in early banding and ethology—and, as I discuss in the final section, these intersubjective aspects of banding are also to be found in later “cognitive ethology” and multispecies studies.
Writing on the early history of banding, Frederick Lincoln credited S. Prentiss Baldwin—a wealthy avocational ornithologist in Cleveland—with demonstrating the use of traps in conjunction with banding to yield efficient, nonlethal “returns” (i.e., getting information about the movements of live, recaptured birds rather than banding records sent in from shot game birds).19 Beginning in 1914 his techniques served as a basis for later Biological Survey manuals and bulletins prescribing proper bird handling and trapping, and soliciting experimentation and advice from the nationwide community of banders. A close reading of these documents yields not only a catalog of devices and techniques used to trap and band migratory birds but also a window into the embodied relationships between banders and their subjects.
As illustrated by Lincoln’s 1921 USDA Circular, Instructions for Bird Banding, which drew heavily on Baldwin’s early banding work, trapping birds for banding evolved from the use of “government sparrow traps” to remove and destroy species such as the English sparrow from agricultural fields, where they were considered pests. This pattern, modifying hunting and trapping equipment for use as banding technology, was repeated throughout the century.20 Despite direct comparisons to, and connections with, hunting and trapping, banders from the first were adamant about the conservation value of their activities and establishing the fact that banding caused no harm to the birds. As stated in the Biological Survey’s Bird Banding Notes, “It is now generally conceded that the use of bird sanctuaries as banding stations is in no way detrimental to their original purpose, but instead is distinctly advantageous and it gives those in charge a scientific reason for protecting and encouraging the birds.”21
Banders and administrators repeatedly insisted in writing that banding had no deleterious effects. Take, for example, Lincoln’s assertion in the pages of the Auk: “The merits of the question as to the relative harm done to bird life through such operations may well be discussed. Occasionally birds will be injured or even killed through accidents in the trap or through careless or inexperienced handling, but such occurrences are so rare that they may be totally ignored. A band properly placed causes neither harm nor discomfort to the wearer.”22 Evidence for the assertion that bands caused no discomfort to birds was built up through careful and repeated observations of their behavior, which necessarily took the form of adopting the subject-position of the animal. As this quote hints, Lincoln’s writing was rich with phenomenological accounts of what it was like to be both a bander and a bird. For banders, “a lively interest attaches to the work in that each operator of a station is in a continual state of anticipation through the knowledge that birds banded at other stations may at any time be register at his own traps.”23 And as for the birds, “frequently after the hand is opened a bird will lie quietly, not seeming to realize that it is free, and it may even permit gentle stroking or the spreading of a wing. Such occurrences are interesting bits of life history information and should be watched for and encouraged, and also reported in detail on the schedules.”24 Banding could be exciting for the bander, calming for the bandee, and important to science.
In a later National Geographic article on banding penned by former chief of the Biological Survey Edward Nelson, banding was similarly lauded for its value to science, the joy it brings to the bander, and its harmlessness to the birds:
Even on a town lot, trapping and banding such wild, elusive creatures as birds have the elements of romance and adventure. . . . The recapture, after a long absence, of birds where they were banded is a joyful event. Since last seen the little wanderer may have visited the desolate shore of the Arctic Ocean or may have sojourned in the luxuriant tropical forests under the Equator. Bird banding opens the door to an intimate knowledge of wild birds in a manner and on a scale hitherto impossible. . . . Not only may definite answers be found to problems formerly unanswerable, but the investigator has the added joy of pitting his wits against those of wild things in their capture. This gives an outlet to that spirit of the chase which has come down to most of us from our primitive ancestors, and is one of its delightful but harmless manifestations, to be classed with the sport of wild-life photography.25
Romantic descriptions of the mysteries of migration were every bit as common in writing about bird banding as tender or amusing anecdotes about handling birds as well as insistence that trapping and banding had no injurious effects on birds or bird populations. Aldo Leopold himself waxed eloquent about the “thrill” of banding for the bander, the “mild annoyance” experienced by the birds, and the rigorous “quantitative science” that banding has helped to create. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold describes the pleasures of banding “to the old-timer the banding of new birds becomes merely pleasant routine; the real thrill lies in the re-capture of some bird banded long ago, some bird whose age, adventures, and previous condition of appetite are perhaps better known to you than to the bird himself.”26 But he also describes the experience, using poetic license, of the bandee, in this case chickadee “65290”: “When banded and released he fluttered up to a limb, pecked his new aluminum anklet in mild annoyance, shook his mussed feathers, cursed gently, and hurried away to catch up with the gang.”27 For Leopold, as for other banders, administrators, and scientists of the period, banding was about the pleasure it held for the bander, imagining the birds’ subjective experience, and the anthropomorphization of these animals as a way to understand their behavior and justify banding activities. As he wrote later in the Almanac, “Field studies have developed techniques and ideas quite as scientific as those of the laboratory. The amateur student is no longer confined to pleasant ambles in the country resulting merely in lists of species, lists of migration dates, and lists of rarities. Bird banding, feather-marking, censusing, and experimental manipulations of behavior and environment are techniques available to all, and they are quantitative science.”28
These ideas about the philosophy, value, and practice of banding very much rang true throughout the century and into the present. As Elliot McClure reflected in the mid-1980s,
In ringing [banding], the bird is the primary objective. It is to be captured, studied alive, recorded, and ringed. The governing thought is that it must be released uninjured—uninjured both physically and “emotionally.” . . . Bird banding is a philosophy, an attitude, without which the would-be ringer had best desist his efforts. No phase of research in avian bionomics requires more patience or more consideration for the subject than does bird ringing.29
Bird banding was, in the minds of professional and amateur banders—whether interested in migration or behavior—a key technique in ornithology. This technique, ostensibly disinterested, objective knowledge for use in wildlife management, was in fact a richly embodied, intersubjective experience with nonhuman nature that required a phenomenological imagination to understand how to trap birds and interpret their behavior, and led to affective bonds between scientist and subject. And these bonds, most famously in the case of Leopold, were associated with a strong wildlife conservation ethic. In the next section, I turn to the example of Margaret Morse Nice as an avid and innovative bander, a founder of ethology, and an embodiment of the phenomenological aspects of avian research and conservation.
Margaret Morse Nice and the Phenomenology of Banding
Margaret Morse was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1883. Her undergraduate education at Mount Holyoke piqued her intellectual curiosity in a number of subjects, but she was unable to reconcile her love of the outdoors with the focus on dissection and taxonomy prevalent in zoology at the turn of the twentieth century. Graduate work at Clark University in 1907 allowed her to explore experimental and observational studies of live animals, however, and she began a research project on the feeding habits of bobwhite. Her graduate studies were cut short with her marriage to Leonard Blaine Nice in 1909, but she was to pursue her passion for research by any and all means for the rest of her life. Despite her lack of an academic position or a PhD, by any measure Nice’s career was astoundingly successful. And it was her explicitly phenomenological research on Song Sparrows—aided in no small part by novel banding techniques—that secured her reputation as a brilliant and pioneering ethologist.30
As prior work on Nice has shown, she helped to build extensive networks of institutions and people, and leveraged these networks to conduct and promote her own intensive, species-level research on bird behavior. And as several historians note, Nice was a prodigious reviewer of international ornithological literature for the journal Bird-Banding, mentioned above, for decades beginning in the 1930s. She also used the platform to report on conferences, as in the January 1935 issue of the journal. Remarking on the themes covered by the Eighth International Ornithological Congress in Oxford, Nice noted that banding was well represented in the section on “Migration and Ecology,” while “there were less than half a dozen papers on life-history subjects,” including her own work on the song sparrow and Konrad Lorenz’s presentation on “Comparative Sociology of Colony-Breeding Birds.”31 Despite the seeming low status or representation of banding in the service of behavioral and life-history studies, it was here that Nice joined the company of biologists who would become internationally renowned for such studies. It was at this conference, in fact, that Nice met Konrad Lorenz in person and had “the rich opportunity of many visits together,” having read each other’s work in the Journal für Ornithologie (now the Journal of Ornithology). Julian Huxley invited both Lorenz and Nice to lunch, for “vivid tales of bird behavior.”32
Both Huxley and Nice, along with Niko Tinbergen and others, would be invited nearly thirty years later to publish a series of articles and reflections in honor of Lorenz’s sixtieth birthday in Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie (now the journal Ethology). Nice’s relationship to Konrad Lorenz was particularly important—in addition to their subsequent correspondence, Nice spent a month working with Lorenz in Austria in 1938 and Lorenz penned the forward to her autobiography decades later. My focus here is not to mark Nice’s importance by virtue of the more-famous men she associated with. Her work stood on its own and much has been written about the gendered aspects of Nice’s less-visible career.33 Rather, her descriptions of her own, and Lorenz’s, work with bird behavior help to point up the epistemological stances that trapping, banding, and observing made possible and necessary. In the festschrift just mentioned, for example, Nice paid tribute to her “guide, philosopher and friend” by quoting her own “Behavior of the Song Sparrow and other passerines” to observe that “gifted with an unusual sympathy for animals and insight into their ways, Lorenz makes use of . . . his own varied and intimate experiences with birds.”34 Historians Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie and Richard Burkhardt each detail the personal and intellectual connections between Nice and Lorenz, but in many ways Nice more than Lorenz—as will be discussed below—prefigured the turn back to sympathetic understanding of animal subjectivities in late twentieth-century ethology.35
Nice’s most well-known studies were with Song Sparrows outside her home near Columbus, Ohio—work that would earn her the highest of praise among her contemporaries. In an unpublished manuscript by Leopold, clearly referring to Nice, he summarizes the complexity of Nice’s contribution—her scientific perspective and status as well as the derision she faced by virtue of her lack of position and credentials:
Another exploration—this time literally of a back yard, is a study of the Song Sparrow conducted by an Ohio housewife. This commonest of birds had been scientifically labelled, pigeon-holed a hundred years ago, and forthwith forgotten. Our Ohio amateur had the notion that in birds, as in people, there are things to be known over and above name, sex, and clothes. She began trapping the song sparrows in her garden, marking each with a celluloid anklet, and being thus able to identify each individual by its colored marker, to observe and record their migrations, feedings, fightings, singings, matings, nestings and deaths; in short, to decipher the inner workings of the sparrow community. In ten years she knew more about sparrow society, sparrow politics, sparrow economics, and sparrow psychology than anyone had ever learned about any bird. . . . Ornithologists of all nations seek her counsel.36
While Leopold’s reference to Nice as an “amateur” and “housewife” (the latter a label at which Nice bristled) made his praise of her sparrow work somewhat of a backhanded compliment, other writing suggested, in fact, that Nice’s work and methodologies were precisely what he considered the cutting edge of “wildlife research.” Commenting on this “new field” in his home state of Wisconsin in the mid-1930s, Leopold suggested that research on wildlife should be conservation minded, diverse in terms of both investigators and investigatory methods, and local. Lamenting that scientific institutions “should have to seek outlets for its brains and energy in expeditions to foreign lands,” he suggested that “the era of geographical exploration of the earth is about over, but the era of ecological exploration of our own dooryards has just begun. Wildlife research is one of many virgin fields of inquiry in which any persistent investigator may contribute not only to science but also to the permanence of the organic resources on which civilization is dependent.”37
Encouraged by Ernst Mayr, a longtime friend and collaborator of Nice, Leopold soon after published a review of Nice’s song sparrow work. The praise could hardly have been higher. “If field ornithology has produced any science, this is it. In it [the study] is exhibited a complete and convincing integration of the field observation, controlled experimentation, and scientific deduction. . . . She marshals her evidence on question after question in bird physiology, psychology, and ecology which the old-fashioned field naturalist has hardly heard of, and which the laboratory scientist has discussed only in terms of white rats, guinea pigs, and fruit flies. This feat of moving laboratory methods into the outdoors is made possible by the individual identification of an entire song sparrow population by means of coloured and numbered leg bands.”38 Lauded by ethologists, ornithologists, and ecologists such as Lorenz, Tinbergen, Huxley, Mayr, and Leopold, Nice’s research showed the benefits to be gained by close attention to and intimate association with bird behavior, made possible by the practice of banding.
It is from Nice’s Song Sparrow work itself that we can get a sense for the embodied, phenomenological nature of her research in the three ways described above. In the second volume of her study, published in the Transactions of the Linnaean Society in 1943, Nice is explicit that her approach to bird behavior is phenomenological: “The technique of my study was largely . . . the ‘phenomenological method.’” She then goes on to explain this “description of behavior,” quoting David Katz’s 1937 Animals and Men, as “a continuous sympathetic observation of an animal under as natural conditions as possible. To some degree one must transfer oneself into the animal’s situation and inwardly take part in its behavior.” Nice then continued, “It is all-important to see and record exactly what a bird does. Instead of saying one bird ‘threatens’ another, we should describe precisely the notes and gestures. We need to know a bird’s equipment of instinctive actions before we can judge as to what is innate and what is learned.” By her own description, to address the pressing questions about animal behavior of her time—whether innate or learned, mechanistic or mindful, intelligent or emotional—the observer must to some extent take part in, and faithfully record, that behavior. This is the “intimate study” of bird behavior that was replete in her popular and scientific writings.39 Her descriptions required an embodied sense of what an individual bird was doing and why.
A more subtle form of this phenomenology was the understanding of bird behavior necessary to trap and band them in the first place. Nice went into great detail with respect to her banding methods in the first volume of the Song Sparrow study, printed six years earlier in 1937. As with other banders of her time she stated that “as a rule the birds can be trapped without too much trouble and are not disturbed by the experience.”40 In the first appendix of this study she explained her methods for “trapping the birds,” each of which required Nice to understand the behavior of birds and the utility of using “food,” “rivals,” and “nestlings” as bait in the traps. On using rivals as bait, for example, Nice wrote,
Sometimes birds can be captured by using rivals as decoys, i.e. if I have caught a male and place him in the trap on his neighbor’s territory, the latter may enter the trap, or a female may be caught in the same way by using a next-door female. But this method is successful only with birds that know each other, for otherwise a Song Sparrow cannot tell the sex of one of its kind in the trap any more surely than a person can, and the presence of a strange Song Sparrow in this situation usually arouses little interest on the part of the male owner of the territory and even less from the female. In some cases in March and early April this method has proved helpful, but in others neighbors have failed to become sufficiently aroused to go into the trap.”41
This intimate understanding of bird behavior underpinned all banding-related study whether or not it was explicitly focused on behavior. In that sense, not only ethology but also migration studies and avian ecology benefitted throughout the century by the epistemology and methods pioneered and championed by scientists like Nice.42
There was, and is, a purported epistemological pitfall in attempting to describe, share, or embody the behavior of wildlife—the specter of anthropomorphization.43 Ascribing human motivations, ethics, or behaviors to birds, or conflating animal and human minds, was paradoxically both common and frowned upon. Nice, like her famous contemporaries, was no exception.44 For example, in her “Relations between the Sexes in Song Sparrows” in the Wilson Bulletin, Nice provided intensive descriptions of sparrow behavior, but by the end of the article expressed worry that her sparrows did not seem suitably monogamous: “I hope that this paper will not give a false impression of the marital relations of my Song Sparrows; although considerable space has been devoted to desertions . . . the majority of my birds are models of devotion to home, mate, and family.”45
Nice was of course aware of the tensions inherent in writing about nonhuman behaviors and minds in (necessarily) human terms, writing in her chapter summaries of the second Song Sparrow volume that “although it was tempting to point out analogies with human behavior in many places, I refrained from doing so until the final chapter.”46 Nice’s biographer has noted that “although Nice described the activities of the birds in anthropomorphic terms in her popular works . . . in her formal papers she kept fastidious records of the behavior of these birds and generally refrained from using such descriptions. . . . Nice’s anthropomorphic treatment of her Song Sparrows in her popular writing did not mask her original, meticulous, and consistent observations of the lives of those birds.”47 This is no doubt the case, yet it is perhaps interesting to note the times at which Nice and her contemporaries chose (deliberately or not) to compare people and birds. In the Song Sparrow study, she praised the “wide experience” and “sympathy with wild birds” that investigators into avian ethology share, and devoted the twelfth and final chapter to the “innate and learned behavior in the adult.” In it, she used ethologists’ theories to analyze the balance between innate and learned behavior as well as emotions, intelligence, and culture in birds, while at the same time discussing the “instincts” and “suggestibility of human beings.”48 Nice made clear in this chapter the reason for a phenomenological method that at times bordered on anthropomorphism—a willingness and ability to sympathize, describe, and analyze behavior that draws analogies between different kinds of minds. In her words, “The study of animal behavior is the only and ultimate source of understanding ourselves.”49
Discussion: Fellow-Feeling, Ethology, and the Environmental Humanities
By way of discussion, below I describe in more detail the phenomenological method that Nice promoted; trace the historical arc from Nice and the ethologists who inspired her, through classical ethology, to cognitive ethology and beyond; and discuss the ways in which Nice’s sympathetic observation of birds is relevant to contemporary, “posthumanist” work in the humanities and social sciences.
The Phenomenological Method and “Fellow-Feeling”
As mentioned above, Nice herself framed her study as employing the phenomenological method of the psychologist David Katz.50 In Animals and Men, Katz described this method in detail, of which the “only aim is to describe the psychologically meaningful behavior of animals just as it finds it.” He went on, “To do this . . . one has to feel oneself into the animal’s situation under the most natural conditions possible. A useful index of success is the accuracy with which one can predict the animal’s future behavior in a particular situation.”51 This description, and certainly Nice’s use of the method, again maps onto the three aspects of an embodied understanding of bird behavior outlined above—intense observation (usually in the bird’s habitat), the understanding of any given bird’s likely “future behavior” required to trap and band it, and the attempt to bond with and share subjective space with the bird (to “feel oneself into the animal’s situation”). With regard to the first, and possibly the second, there was no disagreement—close, careful observation of animals was the foundation of older forms of natural history and the “classical ethology” of Lorenz, Tinbergen, et al.52 It is also, as I discuss further below, the foundation of more-than-human ethnographic work in the environmental humanities.
The third aspect, however, explicitly drawing on the phenomenological method of Katz and Nice, represents a break from ethologists like Lorenz and Tinbergen who favored outward, “objective” descriptions of mechanical, instinctive behavior and actively discouraged explanations of animals’ subjective experiences as unscientific.53 Furthermore, to return to Animals and Men, taking part in animal subjectivities was explicitly emotional and affective—quoting the Dutch ethologist Bierens de Haan, Katz wrote, “It is not by analogy of external signs that we draw conclusions as to special emotions or desires or perceptions in a dog or bird, but by imagining ourselves to be the animal, by conceiving what would be our perception and feelings and desires if we were in the animal’s place.”54
Beyond her printed work, in private correspondence Nice was quite clear about the need for such empathetic, affective engagement with birds. In a 1953 letter to zoologist John Emlen, offering criticisms on one of his ornithological manuscripts, Nice wrote, “I’m not impressed about this denying ‘emotion’ to birds. Heinroth knew vastly more about birds and other animals than do most of the present day animal psychologists and he said birds are ‘Gefühlstiere’ [emotional animals].” After numerous similar critiques, she ended the letter with a general note on bonding with birds: “Study of a live animal is different from a problem in chemistry. No one can understand birds and other animals without a real sympathy for them. Without this fellow-feeling I say that the study will be arid and misleading.”55 “Fellow-feeling” was both a salient aspect and consequence of Nice’s phenomenological method for understanding avian behavior and the close intersubjectivity involved in banding birds.
Nice, Classical Ethology and Cognitive Ethology
Historians and STS scholars have portrayed the mid-twentieth century as the period of classical ethology of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, during which the subjective experiences of animals were expunged from objective science, a situation remedied by primate studies in the 1960s and the advent of cognitive ethology in the 1970s.56 Margaret Morse Nice, positioned at the crossroads of mid-century field ornithology and ethology—borrowing from and corresponding with Lorenz but unabashedly promoting sympathy with birds and the phenomenological method—complicates this picture considerably. Nice’s work and intellectual commitments offer historical continuity from earlier naturalists and proto-ethologists like Jacob von Uexküll through to cognitive ethologists such as the zoologist Donald Griffin, comparative psychologist Gordon Burghardt, and ethologist Marc Bekoff.57 And although (and unfortunately) Nice has been largely forgotten or passed over by cognitive ethologists, it is worth understanding the strong resonance between the philosophy of cognitive ethology, the phenomenology of bird banding, and the promises of more contemporary “multispecies studies.”
Griffin, Burghardt, and Bekoff each approached cognitive ethology slightly differently, but all grant—and investigate—the inner, subjective experiences of nonhuman animals. Griffin has focused on animal awareness and “the value of animal communication as a source of evidence . . . that can provide investigators with information about what animals are thinking and feeling.”58 Burghardt has called for “a critical anthropomorphism and predictive inference that encourages the use of data from many sources . . . [including]: anecdotes . . . one’s thoughts and feelings . . . imagining being the animal . . . naturalistic observations, etc.”59 And Bekoff, perhaps the greatest proponent of an expanded cognitive ethology as the unifying science of animal behavior, has written on the discipline in terms that dovetail neatly with the phenomenology of bird banding: as rooted in “careful observation and description of the behavior patterns,” explicitly involving the “phenomenology of animal consciousness,” and with the goal of “understanding the subjective, emotional, empathic, and moral lives of animals.”60
In addition to a shared interest in animal subjectivity, these ethologists also readily dismiss charges of anthropomorphism as circular reasoning on the part of detractors, and consider critical anthropomorphism a “pragmatic strategy” for generating testable inferences about animal awareness.61 Bekoff writes, “Anthropomorphism has survived a long time, because it is the only reference point and vocabulary we have. It must be done carefully and biocentrically, as we make every attempt to maintain the animal’s point of view by asking ‘What is it like to be _______?’ Claims that anthropomorphism has no place in science or that anthropomorphic predictions and explanations are less accurate than behaviorist or more mechanistic or reductionistic explanations are not supported by any data.”62 And Harry Greene, an ecologist who studied under Burghardt, is explicit about getting into the heads of animals for science, claiming that we “use human perceptions, intuition, and feelings, our inner worlds, to forge novel, testable hypotheses about those of other species.”63
Again, I would argue that Nice, often overlooked by contemporary humanities scholars and almost universally unacknowledged by contemporary ethologists (“cognitive” or otherwise), serves to correct the notion that mid-century biology was barren of scientific attempts to understand and empathize with the subjective experiences of animals, and that her phenomenological method and the embodied understanding of behavior made possible through bird banding strongly resonate with the supposedly renewed interest in animal subjectivity represented by post-1970 cognitive ethology.64
Multispecies Studies and the Phenomenological Method
The stories of bird banding and Nice also evoke the broad movement across the social sciences and humanities recently dubbed in the pages of this journal “multispecies studies.”65 Acknowledging the complementary approach of “behavioral biologists” (including Marc Bekoff) who “have for many years been actively engaged in challenging and reinventing the practices of knowing and experimenting within their fields, acknowledging the subjectivity and individuality of their research partners as well as the researcher’s own context, embodied situatedness, and implication in what is able to be known,” multispecies studies scholars promote “passionate immersion” that “at its core . . . involves attentive interactions with diverse lifeways . . . to provide ‘thick’ accounts of the distinctive experiential worlds, modes of being, and biocultural attachments of other species.”66
Under the multispecies studies umbrella are scholars from a range of humanities disciplines who foreground ethological inquiry, phenomenological methods, or both. And these, too, map onto the phenomenological method of Katz and Nice. Scholars explicitly drawing on the phenomenological tradition of Merleau-Ponty, for example, stress “directly-felt impressions of the world” and the “painstaking act of immanent attention” to accomplish “intrasubjective understanding” between humans and nonhuman others.67 Such acts of embodied attentiveness, in turn, reveal the inner lives of animals. As Eileen Crist has written of the naturalist tradition, “Knowing animals as subjects, that is, with an experiential perspective and with authoring force, assembles a world within which inner life has a part to play and is scenically present.”68 And as Donna Haraway has noted, drawing on the phenomenology of technology, such intersubjectivities are not simply rooted in careful attention and observation, but are wrapped up in technique and touch: “Animals, humans, and machines are all enmeshed in hermeneutic labor.”69 This aptly describes the “commensal” relationship between Nice (or any bander) and bird—the application of colored bands, initiated through capture and touch, create the individualization of birds that is the necessary first step of long-term observation and further intersubjectivity.
Beyond the subjectivities brought into being by embodied attentiveness, multispecies scholarship and the phenomenology of Nice share a dedication to imagination and empathy. Anthropologist Tim Ingold, for example, stresses the imaginative capacity of embodied understanding of the world: “We human beings cannot enter directly into the Umwelten of other creatures, but through close study we may be able to imagine what they are like.”70 Or, as novelist J. M. Coetzee put into the mouth of his fictional writer, Ms. Costello, “There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.”71 Furthermore, according to environmental philosopher Lori Gruen, the ability to “reflectively imagine themselves in the position of the other” allows the multispecies investigator to develop an “engaged empathy” that thus “involves both affect and cognition and will necessitate action.”72 And as Matei Candea has written that affection and empathy are not the only forms of intersubjective connection in human-animal research but also a cultivated detachment he terms inter-patience, which is itself part of an ethical relationship with nature.73
Ethics, in fact, is a frequent topic of literature across the humanities and social sciences after the “animal turn”—including the ethics of banding specifically.74 Affect and an embodied engagement with wildlife has been convincingly tied to the ethics of conservation by geographer Jamie Lorimer, who has developed a typology of affective logic as “a particular mode of engaging with, knowing, and feeling toward wildlife” and pointed out that “thinking like an elephant, an insect, or even a molecule . . . can help attune to the diverse ways in which nonhuman life inhabits the novel ecosystems of an Anthropocene planet.”75 And sociologists Arnold Arluke and Clinton Sanders have, as a rare example of contemporary scholars relying in part on the example of Nice, advocated ethnographic work with animals in which “representing the animal’s perspective requires that investigators become intimately involved with the animal-other and carefully attuned to their emotional experience,” with the aim to “counter the masculinist, positivist, structuralist, reductionist view of the natural world.”76 Literary criticism and animal studies also offer models of “critical anthropomorphism” that can provide “an ethical relating to animals,” and historian and musicologist Rachel Mundy has recently related the history of birding field guides to ask “how our capacity for imagination—for identifying with others, instead of identifying them—offers alternative spaces for ethics.”77 And to return to the recently coined multispecies studies: “multispecies approaches are grounded in the understanding that careful attention to diverse ways of being and becoming is inseparable from the work of ethics.”78
This incredible diversity of interdisciplinary engagement and intersubjective experience is all for the good, and my aim here has been to add historical depth to such efforts, “casting backwards” for rich examples of “passionate immersion” in nonhuman lives that go beyond human-centered institutional histories; correct the assertion that animal subjectivity had been expunged by mid-century, Tinbergian “classical ethology” and behavioral science; and offer additional models for contemporary multispecies studies.79 Intersubjective perspectives, in turn, can be turned back on the institutions and organizations responsible for environmental protection, as indeed Nice did in her lifetime. As her biographer notes, “Learning about birds made her more able to advocate for policies that would promote conservation and preservation.”80 Bird banding generally, and the life and work of Morse Nice specifically, bring into focus a phenomenological method that resonates strongly with environmental sciences like ecology and ethology as well as more-than-human studies across the humanities and the social sciences. The heart of this method, whether rooted in formal philosophical phenomenology or not, is careful, immersive observation, an imaginative intersubjectivity, and the development of an emotional, sympathetic relationship with nonhuman others—a relational understanding of nonhuman nature that is inextricable from response-ability and ethics. Nice’s environmental legacy, then, could be seen as twofold: Nice the birdbander and conservationist advocated “fellow-feeling” with nature during her lifetime, and Nice’s phenomenological study of bird behavior offers environmentalists and scholars a model for deeper engagement with nonhuman nature in the present.
I would like to thank the organizers and attendees of the Boston Seminar on Environmental History—particularly Marilyn Ogilvie—for encouragement and feedback on an earlier version of this article. Additionally, thanks to several anonymous reviewers and the editors of Environmental Humanities. I received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for this project. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the NEH.
See the special issue from May 2016: van Dooren et al., “Multispecies Studies.” For similar, disciplinary approaches to decentering the human in anthropology, sociology, and geography, see, respectively, Kirksey and Helmreich, “Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography”; Taylor, Sutton, and Wilke, “Sociology of Multi-Species Relations”; and Anderson and Harrison, Taking-Place.
See, e.g., Abram, Spell of the Sensuous; Lorimer, “Forces of Nature, Forms of Life”; Ingold, Perception of the Environment, 168–88; Haraway, When Species Meet, 249–63; and Lestel, Bussolini, and Chrulew, “Phenomenology of Animal Life.”
The recent, definitive biography of Nice is Ogilvie, For the Birds. Other work on the history of banding, ethology, and ornithology that includes the life and career of Nice include, respectively, Benson, “Centrifuge of Calculation”; Mitman and Burkhardt, “Struggling for Identity”; and Barrow, Passion for Birds.
Tinbergen, “On Aims and Methods of Ethology.” See discussion section below for a summary of this literature.
For a concise and thorough history of early, interwar banding, see Benson, “Centrifuge of Calculation.” See also Barrow, Passion for Birds, 169–71; Wood, “History of Bird Banding”; and Tautin, “One Hundred Years of Bird Banding in North America.”
Wood, “History of Bird Banding.” Banding authority is today housed in the USGS Bird Banding Lab at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in the state of Maryland. Since 1960 the lab has received more than sixty-four million banding records. See “How Many Bird Are Banded?” www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL/homepage/howmany.cfm (accessed July 9, 2020).
Kohler, All Creatures, 187 (emphasis in the original); Kohler, “Paul Errington, Aldo Leopold, and Wildlife Ecology,” 240. More recently Kohler has expanded his notion of “residential science” with a number of case studies in the history of science including the primatology of Jane Goodall, part of the resurgence of interest in animal subjectivities discussed in the final section. See Kohler, Inside Science.
On emotion and affect in bird banding specifically, see Whitney, “Tangled Up in Knots.”
See, e.g., Ogilvie, For the Birds, 104.
Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior; Ogilvie, For the Birds, 129–34. Ogilvie states that “the basic theoretical structure for her [song sparrow] book was Lorenzian” (195). Nice herself, in correspondence with A. L. Rand at the American Museum of Natural History, wrote, “I am no rabid pro-Lorenzian, although possibly I once was!” (Morse Nice to Rand, December 4, 1940, box 6, folder 2, Margaret Morse Nice Papers, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library).
Leopold, Aldo, the Aldo Leopold Archives, University of Wisconsin. Writings: Unpublished Manuscripts—AL’s Desk File. Philosophic and literary to 1940, p. 513.
Nice, Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow II, 1–2. Historian of science Katherine Pandora has found Nice’s description of her method similarly noteworthy, marking that Nice’s phenomenology “demanded intuitive insight” into the lives of birds and linking it to “field studies” across scientific disciplines. See Pandora, Rebels within the Ranks, 138.
On the historical and theoretical links between bird banding and various kinds of ethology, see McDonald, Jackson, and Davis, “History of the Role of Bird Banding in Avian Behavioral Research.”
Etienne S. Benson remarks on the commonplace and seemingly unproblematic practice of naming and anthropomorphizing animals at this time in “Naming the Ethological Subject.”
Nice to Emlen, February 14, 1953, box 6, folder 9, Margaret Morse Nice Papers, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Oskar Heinroth, like Jacob von Uexküll, was an early influence on both Lorenz and Nice, who unapologetically studied the subjective experience of animals.
See Burkhardt, Patterns of Behavior; Crist, Images of Animals; Crist, “Ecocide and the Extinction of Animal Minds”; Mitman, “Pachyderm Personalities,” 178; Lestel, Bussolini, and Chrulew, “Phenomenology of Animal Life,” 127; Lingis, “Understanding Avian Intelligence,” 46. One of the founders of cognitive ethology, Gordon Burghardt, explicitly sought to reexpand Tinbergian ethology to include the inner lives of animals. See Burghardt, “Amending Tinbergen.” And Donald Griffin, arguably the founder of cognitive ethology, reflected on the history of the field noting the same lacuna of animal subjectivity mid-century: “Behaviorism in psychology and reductionism in biology were so dominant from roughly the 1920s to the 1960s that scientists were reluctant even to consider the possibility that there was such a thing as animal cognition, let alone animal consciousness.” See Griffin, “From Cognition to Consciousness,” 3. For a recent exception to this portrayal of mid-century ethology, see Rose, In the Hearts of the Beasts.
These three scientists are often cited as the pioneers and leading proponents of incorporating animal subjectivities back into biology, and all three agree that the publication of Griffin’s 1976 The Question of Animal Awareness was a watershed moment in the creation of cognitive ethology. For work marrying phenomenological philosophy with traditions in biology and natural history that explored animal experience of the world (e.g. Umwelt), see Buchanan, Onto-Ethologies; and Whitney, “Domesticating Nature?” In Patterns of Behavior, Burkhardt extensively documents the influence of von Uexküll on Lorenz—and by extension, Nice.
Phenomenological methods go beyond ethology to include environmental sciences more generally. See Roth and Bowen, “Of Disciplined Minds and Disciplined Bodies,” arguing that phenomenological embodiment is the “hinge in the making of ecologists.”
van Dooren, Kirksey, and Münster, “Multispecies Studies.” For a similar movement in sociology, see Taylor, Sutton, and Wilke, “Sociology of Multi-Species Relations.”
van Dooren, Kirksey, and Münster, “Multispecies Studies,” 6. The “arts of attentiveness” here draw on the work of Anna Tsing. See, e.g., Tsing, Mushroom at the End of the World, 17.
J. M. Coetzee, “Lives of Animals,” 133. Animal studies scholars have recently used the phenomenological imagination to create “ethnographic fictions” that adopt the perspectives of both humans and nonhuman animals. See Porter and Gershon, Living with Animals.
Geographer Hayden Lorimer has delved “deeper into past practices” of early ethologists to “identify resources to better understand the potentials of an ethological approach” in an explicitly phenomenological framework. See Lorimer, “Forces of Nature, Forms of Life: Calibrating Ethology and Phenomenology,” 56.