Celebrating Women’s History Month With Iowa’s Bird Lady: Gladys Black

Black and white image of Gladys Black

Image Source: humanrights.iowa.gov

Iowa has been home to many influential ornithologists over the years; however, Gladys Black may just be one of the most well known. Born in 1909 in Pleasantville, Iowa she grew up fascinated by birds. Her mother, Jerusha Bowery, encouraged her to learn and explore the world around her. Feeding her curiosity, she helped her daughter study the local birds, and, as stated in her book, by the young age of seven she could identify an astonishing twenty five different species of Iowa birds. From there, her love for learning only grew. Gladys graduated from Pleasantville High School, and decided to continue her education at Mercy Hospital where she obtained her nursing degree in 1930. Following her nursing degree she attended the University of Minnesota, where she received her Bachelors of Science in Public Health Nursing. After graduating, Gladys returned to Iowa where she served as a public health nurse. During this time, she met her future husband, Wayne Black. The couple married and moved to Georgia where she continued to work as a public health nurse and study local birds.

While living in Georgia, she was awarded the 1953 “Woman of the Year” for her volunteer work at Warner Robins Air Force Base. Gladys remained in Georgia until her husband’s death in 1956, after which she decided to return home to Iowa. Once home, she joined the Iowa Ornithologist’s Union, and became an active member instantaneously. Gladys became known throughout the IOU quickly, writing field notes and making observations every day for 35 years, only stopping once while she was in the hospital for five days. During this time, she spent many hours leading elementary students on nature hikes and bird watching field trips, educating the young minds on the wonders of Iowa’s vast natural environment. In 1969 Gladys began to write birding columns for The Des Moines Register. She continued to write columns for the people of Iowa for 18 years, educating both young and old on local birds, habitats, and birding events across the state. Once her column at The Des Moines Register ended, she continued to write pieces for smaller local newspapers, spreading her love for birding and educating the masses. Many of her articles where collected for her first book, titled Birds of Iowa, which was so popular that after two rounds of publication, the Nature Conservancy and the University of Iowa Press decided to print a second book, with all of her articles included. Titled Iowa Birdlife, all profits from the work go towards conservation efforts in Iowa bird habitats, and the piece is still available for purchase today.

Gladys Black spent her life studying Iowa’s wildlife and educating the people around her. Her concern for the environment helped spread awareness on the need to protect our beautiful state and the animals that also call Iowa home. Due to her dedication, Gladys received many honors and awards. Aside from being a dedicated ornithologist, she was also awarded an Honorary Membership of both the Des Moines Audubon Society and the Iowa Ornithologists Union, which only two other members of the IOU have received as of 1998. In 1978 Gladys was awarded an honorary doctorate from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa for being one of the nations leading ornithologists. Later that year, the US Army Corps of Engineers presented her with a certificate of appreciation for her conservation and education work at Lake Red Rock. Then, in 1985 she was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame for her work as a conservationist and humanitarian. Gladys Black served the people, and the wildlife, of Iowa loyally for many years of her life. After her death on July 19th, 1998, a memorial fund was established in her name to help continue her goals in conservation and protect the habitats of the birds that she held so dear. The dedication she had for her passions is inspiring, and her legacy lives on in the hearts of Iowans today when they visit the Gladys Black Bald Eagle Refuge, which opened in 2004 in one of her favorite birding spots at Lake Red Rock.