Restoration of historic bird observation tower advances
Sherman was among ornithology group's first female members
A 97-year-old dilapidated bird observation tower in storage for two decades will soon be returned to its original purpose.
Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman’s ingenious chimney swifts’ tower, constructed in 1915 in the Clayton County town of National, will be restored and erected, perhaps as soon as next year, at a historic Cedar County nature preserve.
It’s uncanny how similar the two sites are,” said Barbara Boyle of the Johnson County Songbird Project, which is working with the Cedar County Historical Society to make the restored tower a reality.
The historical society owns the Bicket-Rate Preserve, a 560-acre tract along the Cedar River near the town of Buchanan, on which stands Edgewood Hall, a rambling 1836 farmhouse that closely resembles the long- demolished Sherman house in National.
The restored tower will stand next to Edgewood Hall, just as it once stood next to the Sherman home, when scores of renowned ornithologists visited to learn about Sherman’s groundbreaking bird study methods.
“You’d swear it’s meant to be,” said Sharon Lynch-Zoparil, director of the historical society.
Not only are the houses similar but the surrounding areas are also bird havens, she said.
“Much of the preserve is timber and river bottom, and the only sounds you hear are natural. People notice the quiet, which is like it must have been at National a century ago,” Boyle said.
The preserve has seldom been open to the public since it was bequeathed to the historical society in 1994, but that will change when the tower is up and the restoration of Edgewood Hall is complete, Lynch-Zoparil said.
After Sherman’s death in 1943, the family property in National was sold and the tower was moved to Harpers Ferry, where it stood until the Songbird Project acquired it in 1992. The 28-foot-tall, 9-foot square tower has since been stored first in Iowa City and later at Bicket-Rate.
The tower’s artificial chimney attracted nesting swifts, which Sherman was able to observe through windows and peep holes accessible from a circular stairway.
While Sherman’s research was cutting edge in the 1920s, the restored tower will be fitted with a pair of cameras and a microphone that will enable bird lovers to view the swifts’ domestic life via the Internet.
The equipment will be donated and installed by Bob Anderson, director of the Raptor Research Project, whose Decorah eagle nest cam has set the standard for the innovative bird observation technique.
“I’m honored to be involved,” said Anderson, who is a fan of both chimney swifts and Sherman’s research.
Sherman (1853-1943) lived most of her life in National, where she conducted painstaking studies of birds that nested near her home. Many of her observations were recorded in "Birds of an Iowa Dooryard," a book published after her death.
She taught herself how to study birds and became only the fourth woman to be named a member of the American Ornithologists' Union in 1912.
Songbird Project President Jim Walters said a pair of anonymous donors recently pledged $25,000 toward the restoration effort on the condition that other donors match the funds.
“We are about half way there, but we can use some help,” he said.
The group is also still raising money to meet the required match on a $175,000 Historic Site Preservation Grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa, Boyle said.
Tax-deductible contributions can be sent to the Johnson County Songbird Project, 1033 E. Washington St., Iowa City 52240-5248.For more details, go to http://www.althearsherman.org/