There was only one.

Gladys Black, that is.

For thousands of Iowans, just that name brings an instant smile of recognition, admiration, and recollection of their personal favorite “Gladys” stories.

Adored by a generation as “Iowa’s Bird Lady,” Gladys’s regular newspaper columns in the Des Moines Register, Pleasantville’s Marion County News, the Knoxville Journal-Express and other newspapers introduced thousands of people to the wonders of birds. Gladys lured her devoted readers not with textbook descriptions but with charming, often folksy anecdotes and reports of her own experiences. Equally at ease in the presence of scientists, neighbor kids, college students, experienced bird watchers, bureaucrats, politicians, or news media, she always preached the same message: protect our birds and their environment.

To be sure, we hear voices with that mantra today. But when Gladys began her crusade, she was a pioneer in her field. She led kids and adults on nature hikes before the advent of the County Conservation Board naturalist. She raised the alarm about pesticides before most people recognized the potential hazards of the chemicals. Gladys taught school children to respect the Earth before “environmental education” became a catch phrase. She cared for sick and injured birds before someone coined the term “wildlife rehabilitator.”

Gladys was not bashful about sharing her passions and her opinions--and she did not hesitate to criticize those whom she believed were harming the environment. She chastised farmers for excessive use of pesticides: “Poisons!” She scorned government officials whose policies she believed were destroying wildlife habitat. And she lectured politicians on the importance of conservation.

Gladys with Harris hawk from February 1981, Photo courtesy Larry A. Stone

Although she berated some hunters as “slobs,” Gladys was not opposed to hunting... except to dove hunting in Iowa. Her successful opposition to Mourning Dove hunting earned Gladys the disdain of many hunters who lobbied in favor of a dove season.

In her hometown of Pleasantville, Gladys earned a reputation as an outspoken, no-nonsense woman with a single focus: teaching people about birds and conservation. Housekeeping, landscaping, a shiny car, or fancy clothes were not priorities.

Gladys was a study in contrasts. Although trained as a public health nurse, she smoked for much of her life, admitting that she didn’t want to waste time worrying about her own health. She loved young people, and doted over the offspring of friends and acquaintances, even though she and her husband never had children of their own.

Gladys bought a hunting license every year to support the work of the Iowa Conservation Commission (later Iowa Department of Natural Resources), although she frequently argued with agency officials about their conservation programs and policies.

She appeared to live in poverty in a ramshackle house, but her home was filled with fine pieces of antique furniture and other furnishings. Gladys lived frugally, but often donated money to conservation organizations, and sometimes helped a few young friends pay their college bills.

Although some dismissed her as an eccentric recluse, Gladys did not hesitate to speak out passionately in public -- especially on environmental issues. She regularly made statements at public meetings, wrote letters to the editor, gave slide programs to service clubs, and called radio talk shows. She often corresponded with friends, as well as with strangers whom she knew only through their letters or phone calls. People all across Iowa regarded her as an expert to whom they could pose birding questions. Sometimes she fielded a dozen or more phone calls a day, patiently answering queries, recording the observation of fellow birders, or listening to people tell of their birding experiences.

When Gladys died in 1998, the state lost not only an ardent bird lover and conservationist, but also a mentor who had touched dozens - no, hundreds - of lives. This book is our attempt to share some stories of Gladys, and to help make the case that the name “Gladys Black” belongs on the honor roll of Iowa conservation legends.

Text excerpt from "Gladys Black: The Legacy of Iowa's Bird Lady," © 2010 by Larry A. Stone and Jon W. Stravers

Available here or by emailing Larry Stone.

Visit the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation tribute to Gladys Black!