Photo: Sherman’s Chimney Swifts’ Tower

 

 

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Famous Tower Rebuilt & Awaiting Swifts      Chimney Swifts’ Tower Open House Tower 11/10      Hooked Up for Web Viewing 10/4        Anderson Outfits Tower with Webcams 10/3        Tower on par with Englert, Old Brick 7/27        Tower Stands Ready 7/18        Vote for Bob Anderson 7/15        Tower Site Ready to Grade 6/25        The Tower Is White Again 6/2        In the Paper 5/8        The Tower Is UP!  5/7        In the Blog  4/28        Sherman Project Update  4/13        Seen the Decorah Eagles?        In the Paper  12/27         Birds Nest in Historic Tower 8/8        News Archives

In the Press:  The Gazette, 8/8/14, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Photo: First Chimney Swift nest in the Tower at Bickett-Rate.

The tower was restored and erected in Cedar County under a partnership of the Johnson County Songbird Project and the Cedar County Historical Society.

Oberlin College Archives photo

 

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman’s historic chimney swift tower, unused by birds for many decades, again houses a nest with hungry swift chicks. “This is astonishing—such a gift,” said Barbara Boyle of Williamsburg, who spearheaded the effort to restore the forsaken structure and re-erect it at a site frequented by its intended inhabitants.  
Boyle said she discovered the active nest Aug. 2 during a routine inspection of the 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square tower situated a little over a year ago on a 560-acre nature preserve along the Cedar River near the Cedar County town of Buchanan. “I did not expect this to happen at all,” she said, referring to the five luminous white eggs that began hatching Wednesday. “Late July is way past prime time for chimney swift nesting.”

Photo: First Chimney Swift nest in the Tower at Bickett-Rate.

The tower was restored and erected in Cedar County under a partnership of the Johnson County Songbird Project and the Cedar County Historical Society.

Oberlin College Archives photo

 

 

Photo: Althea (left) and Amelia (right) and friends in front of the Tower.

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman built this tower as a means to study chimney swifts at the family home in National in 1915.

The tower was restored and erected in Cedar County under a partnership of the Johnson County Songbird Project and the Cedar County Historical Society.

Oberlin College Archives photo

Sherman, a self-taught ornithologist, built the tower in 1915 in the Clayton County town of National to aid in her study of chimney swifts. The tower’s artificial chimney attracted nesting swifts, which Sherman observed through windows and peepholes accessible from a circular stairway. Her groundbreaking bird study methods and meticulous observations attracted renowned ornithologists to National.

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 Johnson County Songbird Project acquired it in 1992. The substantially-deteriorated tower had been in storage until May 2013, when it was refurbished at the Bickett-Rate Preserve, owned by the Cedar County Historical Society.

 

“I am absolutely tickled,” said Sharon Lynch-Voparil, a member of the historical society’s board of directors. Though Lynch-Voparil often had worked at the site in July, she said she never once thought to look inside the tower. “I just thought it was too late for this year,” she said.

So did Mike Bixler, historical society president, who said the nest provides momentum to complete other projects at the site, which temporarily will be closed to visitors to give the swift family privacy.

Raptor expert Bob Anderson of Decorah eagles fame installed two cameras and a microphone in the tower last fall, but more work remains before streaming video will be available online.

Photo: Althea Sherman outside with binoculars 1923.

Self-taught ornithologist Althea Sherman peers through binoculars at birds near her home in the Clayton County hamlet of National early in the 20th century.

Oberlin College Archives photo

 
 

Boyle said she thinks she “felt much the same as Althea did nearly 100 years ago when she was stunned to see the chimney swift nest in front of her eyes.” Like the first nest built in the tower in 1918, the new nest is glued—with chimney swift saliva—to the north wall of the chimney just beneath the observation window.

“Well chosen!” wrote Sherman in her 1918 Chimney Swift Journal. “The projecting angle of the window must protect from rain, the north side must be the coolest one.” Nearly identical to Boyle’s observations last week, Sherman also noted in her journal an aborted nest attempt lower in the chimney.

Though Boyle had often peered into the chimney, she said “seeing this nest with its eggs crystallized a recognition and appreciation in me that I had not experienced before, of seeing the tower in its true intention and purpose as the remarkable, pure tool of scientific observation that it is.”

Boyle said the tower’s design, with light streaming down the chimney to illuminate the nest and well-placed observation windows, “will surely serve its purpose of revealing but not disturbing the birds.”

© 8/8/14 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

 

 

Photo: Althea (left) and Amelia (right) and friends in front of the Tower.

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman built this tower as a means to study chimney swifts at the family home in National in 1915.

The tower was restored and erected in Cedar County under a partnership of the Johnson County Songbird Project and the Cedar County Historical Society.

Oberlin College Archives photo

Photo: Althea Sherman outside with binoculars 1923.

Self-taught ornithologist Althea Sherman peers through binoculars at birds near her home in the Clayton County hamlet of National early in the 20th century.

Oberlin College Archives photo

Birds Nest in Historic Chimney Swift Tower

Structure was re-erected a little over a year ago in Cedar County

By Orlan Love, The Gazette

 

 

 

 

 


In the Press:  Bird Watcher's Digest, March/April, 2014, Marietta, Ohio

 

Photo: Tower.


Sherman's Renovated Tower.

Famous Tower Rebuilt and Awaiting Swifts

By Paul J. Baicich, Bird Watcher's Digest

Right now, chimney swifts are returning to eastern North America, seeking appropriate nesting areas. By mid-April, when they come back to Iowa, there will be a restored research tower awaiting them that had its original opening almost 100 years ago.

In 1915, Althea R. Sherman (1853–1943) hired local carpenters to build a 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square wooden tower in Clayton County, Iowa, for nesting chimney swifts.

She designed the tower, with a staircase winding from bottom to top through three floors and enclosing a 2-foot-square artificial chimney.Small doors, windows, and peepholes into the interior structure allowed this meticulous observer to be the first person to witness and record the entire nesting cycle of these swifts.

Althea Sherman’s journals, covering 18 years and more than 400 pages, offer the single most extensive study of this species in existence. In its heyday, the tower hosted thousands of curious visitors.

Swifts Flying Nonstop for Six Months

While we are on the subject of swifts, there was a fascinating paper published late last year in Nature Communications concerning the behavior of the alpine swift (Tachymarptis melba). This is a species related to our own chimney swift but found breeding in southern Europe, parts of North Africa and the Middle East, and eastward into the Himalayas.

Although observers have claimed that some swifts may stay on the wing for almost their entire lives—except for breeding—there was no solid evidence of this. Then, a team of researchers caught six alpine swifts in Switzerland, tagged them with data loggers (to record the birds’ acceleration and location), and were able to recapture three of them the next year, upon their return from Africa.

Once they reconstructed the flight patterns, the scientists asserted that the swifts appear to fly nonstop when they aren’t breeding. (The swifts eat insects in mid-air, of course, so they don’t starve.) The actual time totals up to a phenomenal 200 days aloft.

But this also raises the question of “how or whether these birds sleep,” the lead researcher, Felix Liechti, adds.

The birds’ activities appeared to fluctuate during flight, especially at dawn and dusk, and the researchers speculate that the birds might still be able to control their flying while sleeping during these 200 days.

How many other swifts—such as the three species nesting in North America—do the same?


Chimney Swifts’ Tower Open House:  11/10/13

Many guests from Johnson County, Cedar County, and beyond joined us for this beautiful day. There were even some repeat attenders from our July Open House. All seemed intrigued and impressed with Althea's creation, and amazed at the stunning beauty and perfect setting the Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve has provided.

Jim Walters led the tours of the Tower through the afternoon. Our displays, brochure, and guest book were set up in the main room inside Edgewood Hall House.

We played the promotional Sherman video created by Jim Tade in the mid-90s. The footage showing hundreds of Chimney Swifts dropping into the chimney at Hoover Elementary School is still awesome!

A display in the corner room opposite the Tower provided views of the chimney's interior through Bob Anderson's webcams. The "down" camera is at the top of the chimney, looking down. The "up" camera features the north chimney wall, where the swifts have historically nested in the past. Outlines of previous nests are still visible on this wall.

Since there is no current Chimney Swift activity, the screen views appear as still images. But when those touring the Tower open the chimney door and look or reach in, the viewers in the house are reminded that these are live cameras. The clarity of the images is just great—it will be SO exciting when swifts move in!

There's an excitement and wonder that everyone seems to feel when they enter the Tower. Especially when they reach the top floor with its observation windows, peepholes, and Althea’s “opera" seat.

Built solely for the purpose of study and research, real science happened in the Tower. It is so rustic and plain, yet quaint, unusual, and highly innovative—a true testament to the ingenuity and scientific dedication of Althea Sherman.

Photo: Tower.

Althea's Tower.

Photo: Tower.

Althea's Tower.

Hundreds of people were led up theTower stairs by Althea in her day. Following in her footsteps, literally, we have now taken more than 100 visitors up those same stairs.

Soon we’ll be sealing the Tower for winter and looking forward to reopening it for tours (and Chimney Swifts!) next spring. We are also gearing up for landscaping the site this coming spring. Getting started on planting the bird/research sanctuary, a windbreak, and putting in sidewalks can’t happen too soon!

While at the Tower Open House, the renowned nature photographers Linda and Robert Scarth took these interior and exterior photos for use on our website. Wow! We're very grateful! You may be familiar with their gorgeous book, Deep Nature:  Photographs from Iowa. If not, add it to your library!

The Scarths are not only fabulous photographers, but really fine writers, too. Their blog, techniques, notes, and other features on their website are very informative, beautifully written, and inspiring. They were also featured in an IPTV Iowa Outdoors segment, which is well worth watching.

Photo: Chimney Windows.

Observation window for looking up inside the chimney.

Photo: Down the Tower stairs.

Down the Tower stairs.

Photo: Cupboard in the Tower.

A cupboard under the rafters.

Photo: Tower window.

Tower window.

Photo: Observation window to indie of chimney.

Observation window for looking down inside the chimney.

Photo; Upthe Tower stairs.

Up the Tower stairs.

Photo: Peep holes for looking onto the chimney.

Peep holes for looking ninto the chimney.

Photo: Chimney window shutter.

Shutter for an observation window.

Photo: Tower.

Tower with Edgewood Hall House in the background.


In the Paper:  The Gazette, 10/4/13, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Northeast Iowa Chimney Swift Tower Hooked Up for Web Viewing

Setup likely to go online in spring

By Orlan Love, The Gazette

Pioneer ornithologist Althea Sherman’s 98-year-old chimney swift observation tower got wired for the 21st century Thursday.

Two video cameras and a microphone, installed by raptor expert Bob Anderson, will eventually provide to Internet users the same views of nesting chimney swifts that Sherman once regarded through a series of peepholes.

“This is so far beyond anything she could have imagined, but entirely consistent with her mission to learn about birds and teach others about them,” said Barbara Boyle of Williamsburg, a member of the Johnson County Songbird Project, which has worked for more than 20 years to preserve Sherman’s historic tower.

“The more I read about her, the more I appreciate her innovative studies in an era when women were not encouraged to be scientists,” said Anderson, director of the Raptor Resource Project, whose Decorah eagle nest cam has set the modern standard for bird observation techniques.

One of the two cameras will focus on a swift nest, and the other will record birds flying in and out of the chimney. It will likely go online next spring. After the nesting swifts’ young have fledged, the 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square tower will likely become a communal roost, Anderson said.

Swifts entering a chimney is a spectacular sight, according to Anderson. “They don’t fly into it. They just drop into it,” he said.

Sherman, a self-taught ornithologist born in 1853, built the ingenious tower in 1915 in the Clayton County town of National.

After she died in 1943, the tower was moved to Harpers Ferry. The Songbird Project acquired it in 1992. It was in storage until May, when it was refurbished and erected at the Bickett-Rate Preserve, owned by the Cedar County Historical Society.

© 10/4/13 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Photo: Bob Anderson installing a webcam inside the Tower as seen through one of the observation windows.

Raptor expert Bob Anderson works on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, to install a videocamera in the confined space of a chimney swift tower built in 1915 by pioneering Iowa ornithologist Althea Sherman.

The photo was taken through one of several small windows and peepholes through which Sherman observed the nesting secrets of the chimney swift.

Orlan Love/The Gazette

Orlan Love, The Gazette's outdoor writer since 1994, graduated from Marquette University in 1977 with a degree in journalism, after serving more than four years in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. Born and reared in Quasqueton on the Wapsipinicon River, he still lives there with his wife, Corinne. Among other awards, his writings have twice earned the Iowa Newspaper Association’s master columnist designation.


Bob Anderson Outfits Tower with Webcams and a Microphone:  10/3/13

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Bob Anderson preparing to wire the Tower with web cams and a microphone.

© Chris Gourley—10/3/13

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Bob Anderson discussing the plan with Orlan Love (The Gazette's outdoor writer).

© Barbara Boyle—10/3/13

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Dave Irvin about to drill holes for the cables inside Edgewood Hall House.

© Barbara Boyle—10/3/13

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Bob Anderson inside the Tower's chimney, as seen though an observation window.

© Barbara Boyle—10/3/13

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Bob working inside the Tower's chimney.

© Chris Gourley—10/3/13

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Bob inside the chimney, as seen though a knot hole.

© Chris Gourley—10/3/13

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Bob Anderson pulling cable through the Tower walls.

© Chris Gourley—10/3/13

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Bob working inside the chimney as seen though an observation window.

© Chris Gourley—10/3/13

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Bob pulling cable inside the Edgewood Hall House.

© Barbara Boyle—10/3/13

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It works! A view from the top of the Tower's chimney looking down inside.

© Barbara Boyle—10/3/13

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The screen shows the top of Dave Irvin's head as he finishes up inside the Tower.

© Barbara Boyle—10/3/13

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A view of the microphone from inside the Tower's chimney looking up.

© Chris Gourley—10/3/13

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Bob Anderson inside Edgewood Hall House. Imagine seeing swifts nesting on the walls.

© Barbara Boyle—10/3/13

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Chris Gourlay (IPTV) interviewing Bob Anderson.

© Janet Ashman—6/19/13

 

Photo:  Chimney camera looking down.

Web camera view looking down the chimney.

© Barbara Boyle—10/3/13

Photo:  Chimney camera looking up.

Web camera view looking up the chimney.

© Barbara Boyle—10/3/13

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Bob Anderson standing in the Tower doorway.

© Barbara Boyle—10/3/13


In the Paper:  The Press Citizen, 7/27/13, Iowa City, Iowa

Sherman's Tower on par with Englert, Old Brick

By Patrick Muller, The Press Citizen

I didn’t climb the rickety ladder that Althea Sherman ascended each fall to close her tower’s opening. I did climb the rest of the stairs and looked through all the peepholes and viewing windows through which she made her scientific observations.

Each notch I climbed, I strode further into the incredible.

This is a regional story that spans four counties and two centuries—although a significant chunk happened in Johnson County. And for the county, it’s one of the most amazing efforts of historical preservation we’ve seen—on par with Old Brick, The Englert Theatre and Isaac Wetherby’s house.

This effort needs award recognition from the county as well as recognition that transcends the county.

In 1915, Sherman erected a swift observation tower on her parents’ farm in National (Clayton County), Iowa. She became a nationally-known ornithologist, and every Iowa school child ought to know something of her life’s work. But our story begins at her end.

Sherman died in 1943; thereafter the Sherman homestead eventually sold; and the tower—to save it—was moved to Harpers Ferry (Allamakee). The tower deteriorated over time and was threatened with demolition in 1992.

Enter the Johnson County Songbird Project, which agreed to be its caretaker and moved it to Iowa City. Over the years, the tower was stored in a sanctuary at the fairgrounds, on a farm and in a warehouse.

Collaborating with the Cedar County Historical Society, the Songbird Project located a forever home for the tower on the Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve in Buchanan (Cedar). (Edward Rate had a glove manufacturing concern on the land before building a factory in Iowa City.)

The preserve will one day have an interpretive center for the swift tower and also be a working farm. The restored tower was erected this spring and one of several open houses was held July 21. (More information is available at www.althearsherman.org.)

If not for the tireless efforts of the Johnson County Songbird Project for the last two decades, though the structure resides in another county, the tower would not exist. (If you want to find a meaningful rendition of the cliché “think outside the box,” this effort is an exemplar.)

Sherman’s tower demonstrates an incredible act of historic preservation. More than that, it’s a paragon of geographical, multi-organizational, and otherwise manifold collaboration—a template for our time.

Plan to visit it sometime and climb its stairs into an amazing achievement.

© 7/27/13—Special to the Press-Citizen, Iowa City, Iowa

Photo: Tower finished at last.

The bird observation tower Althea Sherman originally built on her family homestead now stands in Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve in Buchanan.

© Patrick Muller/Press-Citizen, Iowa City, Iowa

 

Photo: Patrick Muller.

Patrick Muller serves on the Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission and lives in Hills.

© The Press Citizen, Iowa City, Iowa


Tower Stands Ready for Chimney Swifts:  7/18/13

Photo: Tower as finished.

The Tower stands ready once again for swifts.

© Barbara Boyle—7/18/13

This original, innovative scientific tool, built in 1915 for attracting and researching Chimney Swifts, has been successfully rehabilitated after more than twenty years in storage!

Those of you who have followed our efforts for more than two decades surely wondered if the Tower would ever stand again. And it's okay if you doubted it would. We wondered, too, more than once.

It probably would not have stood again without the State Historical Society of Iowa, Historic Site Preservation Grant Program. And it certainly would not have been restored without all of our generous donors—many of you who are reading this now.

We are so deeply grateful to all of you who made this long-awaited success possible!

Our primary goal with the grant was to raise the funds necessary to cover all the people, equipment, and materials necessary to complete the rehabilitation of the Tower. And we did it!

The chimney is open and ready for a new family of Chimney Swifts, and the Tower will be available for people to enter, and see, and use for research again.

This is a dream come true for us. . .

Thanks to several generous donations in the last weeks, we were also able to hire a landscape architect who created a plan for a living bird sanctuary, intended to attract birds (and butterflies) of all kinds, and to reflect Althea's living laboratory.

We were also able to purchase a number of period trees and shrubs known to have been in Sherman's original sanctuary. The landscaping work will begin in fall.

Nestled in the Cedar trees at the Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve, the Tower looks resplendent in its new coat of fresh white paint.

On a recent visit there were Cedar Waxwings, a Kingbird, Cardinals, Chipping Sparrows, a Phoebe, a Downy Woodpecker, Robins, an Indigo Bunting, and Goldfinches. All seen in those Cedars or in the area closely surrounding the Tower.

A Bobolink passed through the yard. A Red-headed Woodpecker drummed on a tree across the drive, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker's call was heard. Probably to Althea's dismay, a House Wren was loudly announcing its presence.

Many, many Barn Swallows were swooping throughout the area. And 17 of their nests were counted in just one area of the barn. A pair of Turkey Vultures was seen entering the barn several times over the last couple months and a Great Horned Owl was seen in there on the 4th of July.

Chimney Swifts had been present in nearby Buchanan but none had been seen in the Bickett-Rate yard. Then in mid-July reports started coming in of swifts flying over the Tower.

Sure enough, we've seen them ourselves, flying right over the chimney. We believe if they‘ve flown over the chimney, they‘ve also been in the chimney. It‘s their nature. Hopefully we'll be able to film some roosting swifts this fall!

We're not quite ready for a regular tour schedule yet. There is still much to do at the site. We will be hosting some donor open houses this fall, and there will be a major celebration at some point. We will keep you posted!

And, THANK YOU SO MUCH!

Photo: Sherman's Tower, National, IA.

The Tower in National, Iowa.

© Althea R. Sherman Collection


Vote for Bob Anderson:  7/15/13

The following post is currently on the Raptor Resource Project's Facebook page. We are such fans of Bob Anderson, and are so looking forward to the work he will be doing with us, that it felt appropriate to post this on our website, too.

Bob was nominated for an Eagle Rare Life award this year because of his work in peregrine falcon recovery. Although we are best known for our work with birdcams, Bob has been involved in falcon recovery since 1971. At that time, the peregrine population in the United States and Mexico had dwindled from an estimated 1,500 pairs to just 19 pairs located in remote areas of the far West.

Bob quit his corporate job, cashed in his retirement, sold his home, and founded the Raptor Resource Project to help recover the peregrine falcon. He has truly lived a rare life.

The article about Bob "Dedicated to Recovering Birds of Prey" is very inspiring, and really illustrates the significant impact of his contributions to the bird world over several decades. It would be fabulous for us to help Bob win this award.

Vote for him. No sign-up or registration is required. The 'Vote' button is at the bottom of the page. The winner gets $40,000 donated by Eagle Rare to the charity of his or her choice. You can vote once a day until 11:59pm EST, January 7, 2014.

Photo: Bob Anderson and an eaglet.


Tower Site Ready to Grade:  6/25/13

If only the downpours would stop so the mud could dry . . .

Photo: Tower as seen through Edgewood Hall window.

The Tower as seen through an Edgewood Hall House window.

© Janet Ashman—6/19/13

Photo:  Tower with Rich Dana in doorway.

Rich Dana entering the Tower. The roof ridges have been trimmed.

© Janet Ashman—6/19/13

Photo:  Tower with roof rails trimmed.

The Tower with its exterior coat of paint finished.

© Janet Ashman—6/19/13

Photo:  Tower with door..

The Tower with a front door.

© Janet Ashman—6/19/13


The Sherman Tower Is White Again:  6/2/13

Photo: Tower painted white, again at last.

Rich Dana and Todd Sabin began painting the Tower last weekend.

© Rich Dana—6/2/13


In the Paper:  The Green Gazette, 5/8/13, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Photo:  Watching the Tower fly.

Spectators photograph the historic Althea Sherman chimney swift tower as a crane lowers it Wednesday onto a foundation built for it at the Bickett-Rate Preserve near Buchanan in Cedar County

Orlan Love/The Gazette

Bird observatory upright again

Tower had been in storage for 21 years

By Orlan Love, The Gazette

Buchanan—The historic Althea Sherman chimney swift tower stood upright Tuesday for the first time in 21 years.

Photo:  Barbara Boyle, John County Songbird Project.

Barbara Boyle—Johnson County Songbird Project

Orlan Love/The Gazette

“There were many times I thought this day would never come,” said Barbara Boyle of Williamsburg.

Shortly after, a crane lifted the 6,500-pound tower onto a concrete foundation at a 560-acre nature preserve along the Cedar River near the Cedar County town of Buchanan.

“It has been 98 years since the tower first went up, 77 years since Althea Sherman last used it, nearly 21 years since it last stood,” said Boyle, a member of the Johnson County Songbird Project who has championed the effort to preserve the memory of Sherman.

“Your devotion has paid off,” Dan Daly of Iowa City, a member of the Songbird Project’s board of directors, told Boyle.

“No one knows more about Althea (than Boyle),” Daly said.

“This project will help popularize the work of a very important woman scientist of the early 1900s who seemed doomed to oblivion.”

Althea Sherman, a self-taught ornithologist, built the ingenious tower in 1915 in the Clayton County town of National to aid in her study of chimney swifts.

The tower’s artificial chimney attracted nesting swifts, which Sherman observed through windows and peepholes accessible from a circular stairway. Her groundbreaking bird study methods and meticulous observations attracted renowned ornithologists to National.

• Born in 1853, Sherman 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.

• In 1912, she became only the fourth woman to be named a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

“The more I read about her, the more that woman amazes—a self-taught woman rising to the top of a then-male dominated field,” said Bob Anderson, director of the Raptor Research Project, whose Decorah eagle nest cam has set the modern standard for bird observation techniques.

As soon as swifts settle in the tower, Anderson will set up a nest cam that will enable Internet users to see what Sherman saw though her peepholes.

Photo: Althea Sherman outside with binoculars 1923.

Self-taught ornithologist Althea Sherman peers through binoculars at birds near her home in the Clayton County hamlet of National early in the 20th century.

Oberlin College Archives photo

Photo: Althea (left) and Amelia (right) and friends in front of the Tower.

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman built this tower as a means to study chimney swifts at the family home in National in 1915.

Oberlin College Archives photo

The tower was moved to Harpers Ferry in 1962 and it has been in storage for the past 20 years, but it may soon be restored and erected in Cedar County under a partnership of the Johnson County Songbird Project and the Cedar County Historical Society.

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 in storage.

The site is the Bickett-Rate Preserve and the partner is the farm’s owner, the Cedar County Historical Society.

“I think we’ve got something special here. History is coming back alive,” said society president Sharon Lynch-Voparil.

The tower stands next to Edgewood Hall, a rambling 1836 farmhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The preserve has seldom been open to the public since it was bequeathed to the historical society in 1994, but that will change when restoration of the tower and of Edgewood Hall is complete, Lynch-Voparil said.

“It will be a combination historical site and bird refuge. We should not be hiding something like this,” she said.

Photo:  Sharon Lynch-Voparil, CedarCounty Historical Society.

Sharon Lynch-Voparil—Cedar County Historical Society

Orlan Love/The Gazette

 

© 5//8/13 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa


The Sherman Tower Is UP!:  5/7/13

We are beyond thrilled to report that Althea R. Sherman's Chimney Swifts' Tower stands again!

The plan was to situate a 25-ton crane in the Edgewood Hall yard to lift the Tower to its foundation. Eastern Iowa has had an excessive amount of rain over the last two months, including 3-4 inches that fell just three days before the Tower raising. Because of that, we did not know until Monday night if Tuesday's plan would proceed. We were very excited to get the phone call telling us yes, the plan was a go.

We arrived early Tuesday morning to see a 50-ton crane parked in the driveway! Someone said they could see it from miles away, slicing the skyline. The tower was first hitched to the crane bridle and lifted horizontally in order to remove the flat-bed trailer. Then the bridle was re-attached to the top of the tower for the vertical lift.

Everyone, even the construction crew, thought the crane operator was going to swing theTower around the trees. To everyone's astonishment, he lifted the Tower OVER the trees! Given that the trees are about 30 feet tall, and theTower 28 feet high, its top had to have been 60 feet or so in the air!

It was a completely unexpected and spectacular sight! As it cleared the trees, the Tower spun slowly and gently on its way down to the foundation. One of the crew was overheard saying "It knows where it wants to go." The crew easily guided the Tower's new sill plate to the anchor bolts rising from the foundation. The Tower was securely attached to the foundation. It stands again!

We never imagined we'd see the Tower fly! Our hearts and spirits flew right along with it. As unexpected and odd a sight as this was, it felt somehow really appropriate. Someone wondered if any Chimney Swifts saw their new home, and a few of us shed a tear, wondering what Althea might have thought and felt. We so hope she was watching...

In the week since, the new roof is on and work has shifted to the interior. The grant deadline, and deadline for the Tower to be finished, is coming so fast! June 15! Hammers will be flying, too!

And, we've got a flat-bed trailer for sale! Yay!

Photo:  Tower moves out of storage.

Photo:  Tower moved out of storage.

Kurtis Voparil at the wheel of his 1958 John Deere tractor pulls the Tower out of storage. Todd Birkel (our Structural Engineer) looks on and Rich Dana leans in. © Janet Ashman—5/6/13
Darran Hidder and Todd Sabin (our Contractor) begin to prep the Tower for crossing Co Highway X40 to its forever home. © Janet Ashman—5/6/13

Photo:  Tower crossing the road to Walters Lane.

Photo: Tower on the lane to Edgewood Hall.

Kurtis Voparil pulls theTower across Co Highway X40, turning on Walter's Ave. © Janet Ashman—5/6/13
Tower turning off Walter's Ave onto the Edgewood Hall lane. © Janet Ashman—5/6/13

Photo:  Prepping Tower for the lift.

Photo: Tower lifted off trailer.

Tower being cabled by Rich Dana and Darran Hidder in preparation for the lift off the tralier. Todd Birkel snaps a photo. Rick Schmitt, Kurtis Voparil, and Bo Donaldson walk off. © Janet Ashman—5/7/13

Tower has been lifted off the trailer by the 50-ton crane, operated by Terry Hamer. Crew looks on. © Janet Ashman—5/7/13

Photo:  Tower nearly upright.

Photo:  Tower lifted upright.

Tower being lifted upright by the crane. Rick Schmitt, Todd Birkell, and Darran Hidder look on. © Janet Ashman—5/7/13
Tower upright and prepared by Rich Dana, Rick Schmitt, Todd Sabin, and Bo Donaldson to fly over the Cedar trees. © Janet Ashman—5/7/13

Photo: Tower flying over the Cedars.

Photo: Tower flying over the Cedars.

Tower lifting off and flying! © Barbara Boyle—5/7/13
Tower flying over the Cedar trees. © Barbara Boyle—5/7/13

Photo:  Tower flying over the Cedars.

Photo:  Tower flying over the Cedars.

Tower descending. © Barbara Boyle—5/7/13
Tower about to set down. © Barbara Boyle—5/7/13

Photo:  Tower nearly set on its pad.

Photo:  Tower trying to align.

Tower being shifted so its corners align with the anchor bolts. Todd Sabin pushes against the Tower to align it.. © Janet Ashman—5/7/13
Rich Dana steps into the Tower to help align it from the inside. © Janet Ashman—5/7/13

Photo:  Tower Down!

Photo:  Tower unbraced.

Tower standing on its pad...Finally! © Janet Ashman—5/7/13
Tower without its front bracing. © Janet Ashman—5/7/13

Photo: Tower with Roof!

Photo:  Tower with chimney shakes.

Tower with the new Cedar roof. © Barbara Boyle—5/14/13
Tower with the new roof ridge rolls and shingles on the chimney. © Barbara Boyle—5/16/13

Photo:  Tower with roof and Edgewood Hall.

Photo:  Tower and Sherman House in National.

Tower and Edgewood Hall at Bickett-Rate. © Barbara Boyle—5/14/13
Tower and the Sherman house in National, Iowa. Check the photo to the left again. Amazing, isn't it? © Eloise Meyer

Photo:  Trailer for sale.

The trailer really is for sale. Our phone number and e-mail address appear at the bottom of the page. Contact us for more information.

 

Trailer for saleI © Barbara Boyle—5/7/13
 

In the Blogsphere:  The American Birding Association, 4/28/13, ABA Blog

Photo: Althea (left) and Amelia (right) and friends in front of the Tower.

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman built this tower as a means to study chimney swifts at the family home in National in 1915.

A Tower to Remember

by Paul Hess

You 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.


Sherman Project Update:  4/25/13

We heartily thank all of you who have been donating to help us match our grant! We are getting ever closer and we deeply appreciate your support. We will be having a donor-gratitude event at the site in the near future and will be notifying you soon. Thank you!

For anyone else who would still like to help us meet our match, there is a $15,000 matching pledge in effect which will double your money (dollar for dollar) up to that amount. We haven't met our grant match yet, and there's still time, though that is getting short.

We recently added a PayPal account to our website, so donating now is easy and instant!

Donate Now by Check or Online!

We are a 501(c) (3) organization and your donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law.

Please join us in raising the funds necessary to preserve and honor Althea Sherman’s unique contribution to ornithology with your own contributions toward rehabilitating her Chimney Swifts’ Tower.

Actual, physical work on Althea Sherman's Chimney Swifts' Tower started a number of weeks ago, while the Tower is still in storage and horizontal on a trailer.

Todd Sabin of Four Prong LLC is our Contractor, guided by our Preservation Architect, Doug Steinmetz. They've done as much as they can until the Tower is standing again.

Photo:  Tower about to go into storage for the last time.

Tower about to go into storage for the last (we hope!) time, Buchanan, Iowa.

© Janet Ashman

The Tower will be standing again very soon and work will begin on the interior. We're earnestly hoping the rain will give us a break, as the deadline for the Tower to be up and finished is June 15!

Photo:  Todd Sabin, Barbara Boyle, and Doug Steinmetz signing the construction contract with the Tower in the background.

Todd Sabin, Barbara Boyle, and Doug Steinmetz sign the contract with the Tower in the background.

© Janet Ashman

We were held up by the cold spring and frost in the ground, then for weeks by rain. Finally, the footings for the tower's foundation went in the ground today The concrete pad will be poured 4/26.

Photo:  Rich Dana, Todd Sabin, and Darrel x work on bracings for the Tower.

Rich Dana, Todd Sabin, and Darran Hidder work on bracings for the Tower's move to Bickett-Rate.

© Barbara Boyle

Photo: Concrete footinga for the Tower.

Concrete footings for the Tower were poured April 25, 2013.

© Barbara Boyle

As if realizing 20-year-old goals were not exciting enough, we are thrilled to report that Bob Anderson visited with us at the Tower's new site recently and was clearly impressed by the possibilities there.

Bob has also been fascinated by Chimney Swifts since he was a child. His webcams and microphones will allow us to live stream Chimney Swift nesting activities from inside the Tower's chimney.

As well as exploring the Tower and Edgewood Hall, he led the way to the barn and talked of placing nest boxes and cameras there, as well.

Althea did just that a century and more ago, using soap boxes to attract Flickers and other hole-nesting species. She included peep-holes and hand-holes in her designs so that she could study the nesting birds and reach in to extract the nestlings for weighing and measuring.

 

Photo:  Doug Steinmetz and Bob Anderson peruse the blueprints.

Doug Steinmetz and Bob Anderson look over the blueprints.

© Barbara Boyle

Chris Gourley of Iowa Public Television (IPTV) began filming for a feature on Althea! He filmed the Tower and site and followed all of us around and conducted interviews. Chris will be returning three more times for filming, including the lifting of the Tower.

Photo:  Chris Gourley (IPTV) about to film the Tower's new site.

Chris Gourley, about to film the Tower’s new site.

© Barbara Boyle

While there, Iowa Public Television presented Bob with an original P. Buckley Moss painting of a family of Eagles in gratitude for his help to IPTV. That was a wonderful surprise for Bob, and for us to see, too!

Photo:  Bob Anderson presented with gift from Pam X at IPTV.

Bob Anderson presented with gift by Patty Foster, from IPTV.

© Barbara Boyle

The Iowa City Bird Club will be conducting a breeding bird survey at the Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve starting in May. The Cedar County Historical Society is very excited about this, as such a survey has never been done at this location before. With 350+ acres of timber, creeks, sand prairie, river bottom and the river's edge, it will be fascinating to learn just who calls this place their summer home!

Paul Hess, Department Editor and blogger for the American Birding Association, has written an article on Althea, Chimney Swifts, and our project which will be appearing in the upcoming issue of Birding magazine, in the "News and Notes" column. Thank you, Paul!

The Cedar Rapids Gazette's Orlan Love will be covering the raising of the Tower. Orlan is very interested in this project and has been following our progress for years.

Heritage landscaping plans are under way. We will be incorporating the appropriate native species of trees, shrubs and flowers mentioned in Althea's journals to create a living laboratory reflective of her "Acre of Birds." Our first priority will be to install a windbreak to protect the Tower from Iowa's prevailing winds.

We are seeking a nearby source of native, naturally occurring Cedars. The loan of a tree planter for transplanting them would also be appreciated. Any landscapers or suppliers who would be interested in getting involved or donating plantings, please contact us.

Things are moving very swiftly now for the Althea R. Sherman Project. Once again, we thank you for your support and hope you will check back often for updates.


Seen the Decorah Eagles’ Webcam?

Photo: Bob Anderson stretched out in an Eagle nest.

Bob Anderson resting in an Eagle nest, Decorah, Iowa.

© Raptor Resource Project Blog (3/5/12)

 

Cinematographer Bob Anderson is “the guy behind” the Raptor Resource Project, aka the Decorah Eagles. Bob met Doug Steinmetz (our Preservation Architect) recently at a conference.

And as a result of their meeting, Bob became interested in the restoration of the original Sherman Chimney Swifts’ Tower and our educational project.

Bob has offered to equip the Tower with webcams!

• He’ll install daylight/night-vision cameras inside the Tower along with a microphone.

• There will also be a camera outside so the Swifts can be seen dropping into and leaving the chimney.

Althea Sherman wanted to study Chimney Swifts and designed this innovative structure to accomplish that goal. She was the first human ever to view the entire nesting cycle of this species, and studied the Swifts for 18 years from within this very Tower.

The technological advances of today would have been inconceivable to Althea. She could not have imagined internet streaming or webcams and their ability to reach people around the globe, or ever dreamed of their potential in education.

That her humble Tower will be coupled with this far-reaching technology to share and further her work and educational efforts would surely bring her profound joy and gratification.

Through teaming with Bob Anderson, we will all be able to see what Althea saw for the first time, from the very place where she first saw it.

We will be able to witness, learn, and add even more to her research of Chimney Swift family life. We are so grateful to Bob for his interest and future work with our project!


In the Paper: The Gazette, 12/27/12, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

by Orlan Love, The Gazette's outdoor writer since 1994, graduated from Marquette University in 1977 with a degree in journalism, after serving more than four years in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War.

Born and reared in Quasqueton on the Wapsipinicon River, he still lives there with his wife, Corinne. Among other awards, his writings have twice earned the Iowa Newspaper Association’s master columnist designation.

 

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 Bickett-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.

Photo: Althea Sherman outside with binoculars 1923.

Self-taught ornithologist Althea Sherman peers through binoculars at birds near her home in the Clayton County hamlet of National early in the 20th century.

© Oberlin College Archives. Oberlin, Ohio

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-Voparil, director of the historical society. Not only are the houses similar but the surrounding areas are also bird havens, she said.

Photo: Althea (left) and Amelia (right) and friends in front of the Tower.

Althea Sherman (left) and sister Amelia Sherman (right) with a group of young friends in the yard near the Tower.

© Oberlin College Archives. Oberlin, Ohio

“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-Voparil 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 Bickett-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, IA  52240-5248.

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman built this tower as a means to study chimney swifts at the family home in National in 1915.

The tower was moved to Harpers Ferry in 1962 and it has been in storage for the past 20 years.

It may soon be restored and erected in Cedar County under a partnership of the Johnson County Songbird Project and the Cedar County Historical Society.

© 12/27/12 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

 

Photo: portrait of Althea R. Sherman

Althea Rosina Sherman

© Oberlin College Archives. Oberlin, Ohio

Contact Us
1033 E. Washington St   •   Iowa City, IA 52240-5248
319.668.1838
www.althearsherman.org   •   4althea@windstream.net

updated      02.25.14
Grafic: pen and ink drawing of Sherma’s Chimney Swifts’ Tower by William J. Wagner, AIA

Sherman’s Chimney Swifts' Tower

© William J. Wagner, FAIA (1965)