While driving along Highway 52 in Clayton County, one can spot many roads that lead to hidden treasures among the gems of the rolling hills and river valleys. Upon first glance, one may even underestimate their importance to the area. In 1915, renowned ornithologist Althea Sherman began a project to construct a 28-foot tall wooden structure in National, Iowa that would allow for scientific observation of chimney swifts. Providing a proper nesting space attracted nesting swifts, and Sherman became the first person to observe and document the full nesting cycle of the species. It’s thanks to her tower that 18 years and 400 pages of research could be conducted, and made what may possibly be the most extensive research on the species. Today, a replica of the Sherman Swift Tower stands in National, open for tours while the birds have finished nesting.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve been interested in bird watching-- listening to their songs in the spring time, watching them hop along the sidewalk in the summer, and making sure to pose no threat during their nesting cycle. One day, I saw a poster advertising the fall tour in Sherman Swift Tower, and I figured it’d be worthwhile to see what an ornithologist observation tower was like on the inside. It was a sunny September afternoon when I stepped into the white paneled tower. A guide had just started a tour with a small group, so I joined them as we followed the guide up the winding staircase.
Once we made it to the observation area of the tower, just below the chimney, we were free to explore Althea’s careful considerations that were put into place. On the wall, there were wooden panels that when moved, revealed a peep hole into the chimney. Hidden behind shutters and panels were windows and observation holes to view the inside of the chimney. Our tour guide explained the nature of chimney swifts, and the importance of the tower made sense. Chimney swifts have very short legs and are incapable of perching. So, they cling to vertical structures and build bracket nests that sit vertically on surfaces. Althea’s tower was the first structure built to be able to observe the species, which made her research crucial for the documentation and illustration of the species. It was a neat experience to stand where she once stood, documenting the species, and I was grateful to have been able to see it for myself.
Far too often, people will pass by those roads along the highway without batting an eye. Clayton County is full of gems and treasures, and some of those gems are hidden by the rolling hills and bluffs. However, finding those treasures can lead to an unforgettable experience, and a breadth of knowledge to take home and share with friends and family. The Sherman Swift Tower has been moved around, duplicated and redesigned, and has been able to promote interest in wildlife observation, and nationwide acknowledgment for a grand feat of scientific observation.
Written by Jayna Felder | Photo Credit to Earl Leatherberry