American Birding Podcast



A Tower to Remember

Althea_Sherman_birdhouseYou are forgiven if you can’t guess the purpose of the odd building in this photograph from 90 years ago. You are forgiven, as well, if the name of Althea R. Sherman does not ring an ornithological bell.

She is the woman at the center of the picture, who conceived and designed the building. Her sister, Amelia, is at right, and they are accompanied by a group of neighborhood children in the tiny hamlet of National, Iowa. The photo, probably taken in 1923, is used by permission of the Oberlin College Archives in Oberlin, Ohio, where Sherman studied and taught art for a number of years.

The structure is a fascinating piece of ornithological history that deserves more widespread attention than it has received. The 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square wooden tower topped by an artificial chimney is ingeniously designed to observe nesting Chimney Swifts. Sherman and other observers climbed stairs winding up three stories through the tower to the chimney.

An extraordinary self-taught ornithologist, Sherman (1853–1943) had the tower constructed to her careful specifications in 1915 at her residence amid the vast farm country of northeastern Iowa. Remarkably, it still exists, and what an achievement it would be to restore it!

That is exactly the goal of a nonprofit organization, the Althea R. Sherman Project, which is campaigning for funds to make it possible. There are good historical and ornithological reasons for the restoration. As leaders of the project note on their website, the tower allowed Sherman to be “the first person ever to witness and record the entire nesting cycle of these birds. Her Chimney Swift journals, covering 18 years and more than 400 pages, may offer the most extensive study of this species in existence.”  

Reading some of Sherman’s minutely detailed day-by-day notes, you will see that the project leaders do not exaggerate. Excerpts from the journals are published as a chapter “The Home Life of the Chimney Swift” in her posthumously published 1952 book Birds of an Iowa Dooryard. A 1996 edition of the book includes a great deal of interesting background on Sherman and her various ornithological projects.

Dilapidated and in storage after many decades of disuse, the rehabilitated tower will be moved to the Cedar County Historical Society’s Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve near Buchanan, Iowa. The preserve includes a bird sanctuary, a museum, and an environmental education center.

You will not need to go to Buchanan to see the nesting show. The stairs inside will not accommodate visitors, but it will eventually include two webcams and a microphone. If swifts decide to use the beckoning “chimney,” you’ll be able to peep at their domestic life via the Internet. Robert Anderson, executive director of the Raptor Research Project, is donating the webcams.

How soon the restoration will be completed depends on success of the fund-raising campaign. The tower is certified as eligible for status in the National Register of Historic Places, and the State Historical Society of Iowa has awarded the project a matching grant. Now the project leaders are seeking the $87,000 necessary to receive the other half of the grant.

Besides its historical, ornithological, and educational values, the tower will have a third important benefit: conservation. It will call attention to the dire plight of the Chimney Swift, whose relative abundance in the U.S. and Canada has declined 66% from 1966 to 2011, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

That is almost exactly the decline reported for Iowa, which is severe enough to warrant conservation attention there. The plunges in relative abundance are even more severe in southeastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. For example, during the same 1966–2011 period, the survey shows declines of 97% in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and 90% in Maine. Clearly, the Chimney Swift needs all the conservation attention it can get.

An article in my News and Notes column in Birding (July 2011, p. 27) described a combination of dangers contributing to the Chimney Swift’s decline. First is a decrease in acceptable breeding sites as suitable chimneys have dwindled in residential and other architectural designs. Another is a decline in the abundance of flying insects, perhaps because of increased use of pesticides. A third may involve ecological threats in the species’ South American winter range that are not well understood.

It’s worth noting that ABA’s Bird of the Year, the Common Nighthawk, faces the exact same trio of troubles: dwindling nest sites, food shortages, and threats in its South American range. A recent News and Notes article (Birding, March–April 2013, pp. 26–27) reported the nighthawk’s decline, and a feature article in the May/June 2013 Birding will explore the matter in greater detail.

As for the Chimney Swift, there is scarcely a better examination of its breeding behavior than Althea Sherman’s tower and her nearly two decades of observations. One of her comments in Birds of an Iowa Dooryard sounds quaint today, but it represents the feelings she had for the bird:

“During the many summers of intimate living with the Chimney Swift, I have never found it a subject for criticism in any respect—no evil has been detected in its relations with its own or with other species. In short, it appears to be a paragon of perfection—the bird that properly might be chosen as the emblem of peace.”

Yes, quaint, reflecting an almost spiritual relationship between the lady and the bird, but let us not be cynical about the role such statements had in ornithological writing a century ago. They were altogether typical of her time. After all, “modern” bird lovers have a similar feeling about our favorite species, even though we don’t express it in such an old-fashioned way.

The Althea R. Sherman Project is doing its part to help resurrect such personal respect for the Chimney Swift and, in the process, for all of nature. That’s an eminently worthwhile environmental goal.