Iowa Conservationists: Gladys Black

Posted on June 10, 2016 in Blog

Glady's BlackAlthough she never received any formal training in ornithology, Gladys Black -- sometimes called "the bird lady of Iowa" -- left a lasting impact on the state through her work with her feathered friends.

Black spent more than 35 years in Iowa doing volunteer work with birds, identifying bird species in the Red Rock region and writing newspaper columns and books on Iowa birds. She never tired of taking children and adults alike "under her wing" to teach them about her beloved birds, and she tirelessly promoted habitat protection and environmental education in the region.

Her newspaper columns about her birding observations appeared in The Des Moines Register from 1969 to 1987 and in three weekly newspapers in Marion County until the week of her death in 1998. Many of these articles were republished in a 1992 book called Iowa Birdlife, still in print today.

"Gladys was the single most important person to bring the world of birds to the general public in Iowa," says Beth Brown, a longtime friend of Black's. Now Black's contributions to Iowa birds and birding were memorialized through the work of Eleanor Coster, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and nearly 500 donors who helped create the Gladys Black Bald Eagle Refuge, located on a popular Bald Eagle roosting site in Marion County.

Read more about Gladys Black, her contributions to Iowa ornithology and the eagle refuge that memorializes her work.


Gladys Bowery Black grew to love birds at an early age. Her mother, Jerusha Bowery, knew all the birds around their home near the Red Rock bluffs in Marion County. As Dean Roosa, Iowa's former State Ecologist, stated in the forward to Black's book Iowa Birdlife, Gladys could already identify about 25 species near their home by age seven.

A graduate of Pleasantville High School, Black received her nursing degree from Mercy Hospital in Des Moines in 1930 and later a bachelor of science degree in public health nursing from the University of Minnesota. She worked as a public health nurse in Clarke County, Iowa, until she met Wayne Black.

They were married and moved to Georgia, where Black's husband worked at Warner Robins Air Force Base. There, Black continued her public health career and became involved with community affairs at Warner Robins. She was named the community's "Woman of the Year" in 1953 for all her civic volunteer work. Meanwhile, Black began working with Dr. David Johnson of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, who helped her establish a bird-banding program and became a sort of mentor.

Working for Iowa's birds
After her husband's death in 1956, Black returned to Pleasantville to care for her mother. Immediately upon her return, she became active in the Iowa Ornithologists' Union and began a collection of data at Red Rock. For the next 35 years, notes Roosa, Black worked every day--except for five days when she was in the hospital--to observe birds and compile data for checklists of species found in the Red Rock area.

"Gladys Black's life wasn't exactly on Easy Street," reflects Marlene Ehresman, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation's program and planning associate, who came to know Black through the fields of environmental education and bird rehabilitation. "As a trained nurse and self-taught birder/ornithologist, Gladys garnered the respect of many simply due to her tenacity."

Black's bird publications
A 1969 letter to The Des Moines Register led Black to write a column about birds and birding in Iowa for the newspaper. For the next 18 years, Black brought birding to the living rooms of Central Iowans through her columns in the Register. Even after she stopped writing columns for The Des Moines Register, her writing continued to appear in weekly newspapers in Pleasantville, Knoxville and Pella for years.

According to a Des Moines Register editorial published shortly after Black's death, "Students read her to improve their knowledge of outdoor lore, birdwatchers read her to learn where the eagles soared, legislators pushing a dove-hunting law read her to learn how much opposition to expect. (Plenty.)"

The Nature Conservancy published a collection of these articles in a 1979 book called Birds of Iowa. Inspired by popular demand and Black's growing collection of essays, The Nature Conservancy worked with the University of Iowa Press to publish a larger collection of her essays in the 1992 book Iowa Birdlife. That book is still available for purchase through University of Iowa Press.

Other honors
Although strictly an amateur birder, in 1978 Black was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Simpson College for her studies of migration patterns and nesting of American birds. That same year, she received a certificate of appreciation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for her conservation and education efforts around Lake Red Rock. In 1983, Black was elected Fellow of the Iowa Academy of Science. She was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1985 for her work as an environmental educator and was recognized by the Iowa governor for 35 years of volunteer work in 1989.

"One thing about Gladys: She was absolutely dedicated, absolutely adamant, absolutely wonderful. She was an absolute woman in a male-dominated era," says Marlene Ehresman.

Black died peacefully in her home on July 19, 1998 at the age of 89. In July 2004, INHF and other partners dedicated the Gladys Black Bald Eagle Refuge, located at a Marion County site where Gladys had done birding.

Glady's Black Bald Eagle Refuge

A popular bird area near Red Rock Reservoir, once frequented by the late Gladys Black, now bears her name. The Gladys Black Bald Eagle Refuge was officially dedicated in 2004.

This 38-acre refuge, which honors the woman once known as "Iowa's bird lady," is located along the Des Moines River and just below the tailrace of the reservoir. Black lived and observed birds in Marion County and wrote a popular birding column in the Des Moines Register for many years. The refuge is used not only by bald eagles wintering in Iowa, but also numerous migratory songbirds and other species.

In 2003 Eleanor Coster and her family sold the site to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation at a bargain price to ensure its protection. Coster's parents, Paul and Mary Felsing, were lifelong friends of Black. For years they banded birds at their home and on adjoining land with sixth graders in Marion County. For this reason, Coster wanted to see the land protected as a memorial to Black, who died in 1998.

INHF then launched an intense fundraising effort to purchase the property for public ownership. Nearly 500 donors responded to the call, many with their own personal recollections of learning about birds from Gladys Black. Because the public response to this effort was so overwhelming, INHF was also able to create a scholarship fund for Marion County high school students who are pursuing college degrees in conservation-related fields.

The project was completed and officially dedicated on July 20, 2004. The site is now owned and managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Today bald eagles often roost on the refuge and can be observed from Horn's Ferry Bridge, a popular viewing platform across the river from the land.

In her columns, Black often wrote of the Bald Eagles she observed in the area. "Like a child, I am always thrilled to see an eagle," Black said. "Never mind Ben Franklin's remarks about the bad habits of the bald eagle, never mind that it is lazy, sometimes a scavenger and sometimes a robber. It is a magnificent bird."

"We can be very thankful for the Foundation's work and Mrs. Coster's forward-thinking vision," says Dan DeCook of Pella, one of the local volunteers who assisted with the project. "This purchase is a positive step forward for Iowa in reversing decades of habitat decline and a testament to all who are passionate about preserving a home for America's national symbol."

In her March 21, 1982 newspaper column, Black wrote, "For 14 spring migrations, 13 autumns and as many winters, it has been pure joy to observe the bald eagles on Red Rock Refuge, the lake and the tail waters below the dam." Now through the work of Coster, INHF, the Iowa DNR and others, the generations that follow Black will also be able to enjoy the bald eagles and the area.