Enthusiasm for the Christmas Bird Count, a tradition among thousands of bird watchers throughout the Western Hemisphere, continues to grow among the Amish of eastern Ohio. Organized and run by the National Audubon Society, the annual ritual of counting birds by species has become a popular way to include nature in the holiday season.
The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) began in 1900 when ornithologist Frank Chapman became concerned about the slaughter of birds and mammals around Christmas. People would celebrate the holiday by going out and shooting anything that moved. Chapman, a prominent ornithologist, organized instead a day for bird-counting rather than bird-shooting. He got local groups to count and record the numbers of birds and numbers of species they had seen during a pre-chosen, 24-hour period within a pre-determined count circle. During the first count, around Christmas 1900, 25 groups—which included 27 participants—recorded 90 species and over 18,000 individual birds.
One hundred years later, by 2000, the count had grown to 1823 groups in which over 52,000 participants counted birds. The CBC, the oldest and largest citizen science project in the hemisphere, records data that scientists use to evaluate the health of bird populations, potential threats to ecosystem integrity, and other conservation issues. Best of all, participants have a lot of fun as they cooperate in the friendly rivalry of counting and recording the most numbers of birds and bird species.
While some Amish people in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere are also bird watchers, the Ohio Amish have gained a reputation for birding excellence. In fact, the current “Christmas Bird Count” issue of American Birds magazine devotes an article to the topic. The author, Bruce Glick, points out that part of the credit goes to a prominent Ohio Amish author, David Kline, Jr., who has written about birds and birding.
The center of the Amish birding activity is Holmes County, where Glick indicates that “the list of rare birds … is amazing.” The Holmes County list includes such unusual species such as the swallow-tailed kite, long-billed curlew, groove-billed ani, violet-green swallow, Harris’s sparrow, and golden eagle. Like most other bird-watchers, Amish birders observe, count, and record their findings regularly, but the three–week period from December 14 through January 5, when the CBCs can be held, is the highlight of the bird-watching year.
Enthusiasm for birding among the Ohio Amish began in the 1970s when some of them began to write down the birds they were seeing around their farms and started reading about them. As their passion for bird watching grew, some of them began taking birding trips and attending local bird-focused programs. Two brothers formed the first Amish CBC in 1989 and centered it on Ragersville, near the Holmes County border in Tuscarwas County, Ohio.
All CBCs are held within a count area, which is defined as a 7.5 mile radius circle centered on the same locality each year. The count organizers fix the date for the count in advance. At the end of the day, many groups get together for a pot luck supper, where they compile the group’s total sightings, the highlight of the day.
Participants in many of the CBCs split up into teams and drive from one choice location in the count circle to another to check out the birds. Participants in the Ragersville count walk. On the first Ragersville count, the participants recorded the first sighting of a mountain bluebird in Ohio.
Amish people started another bird count in 1991, this one centered on Millersburg, in Holmes County. In three years it had the highest count total of any CBC in Ohio, and ever since it has been one of the leaders in the state. In 2005-2006, the Millersburg counters recorded 96 species, a remarkable number for the northeastern US in the dead of winter. Eighty percent of the participants in the Ragersville and the Millersburg CBCs are Amish.
The Millersburg count circle includes a couple wetlands that are great for water birds, which adds to their totals, though Glick emphasizes that the number of enthusiastic, capable bird watchers also helps. Furthermore, their birding technique contributes to their remarkable successes: they walk rather than drive around in vehicles. Both the Ragersville and the Millersburg groups have involved young Amish people in birding activities and programs, which has encouraged them to take up bird watching. The 2006-2007 Millersburg CBC included an incredible 113 participants, 30 of whom were 18 or younger.
Glick points out that while many birding groups focus on rare and unusual sightings, an even more important aspect of the Ohio Amish counting is the fact that they record many more individual birds than most other counts. The Amish CBCs have recorded the most numbers of individual birds for 20 different species in the state of Ohio. Very common woodland birds such as downy woodpeckers, white-crowned sparrows, golden-crowned kinglets, tufted titmouses, pileated woodpeckers, and red-bellied woodpeckers are recorded more often in the Amish counts than anywhere else in the state.
Amish bird watching enthusiasm extends beyond just the CBCs. Five local birders, four of whom were Amish, started a birding journal, The Bobolink. These enthusiasts also started a rare bird alert hotline, operated out of a telephone booth in front of an Amish store. While most birding hotlines have shifted to the Internet, the Amish have neither electricity nor computers, so that wouldn’t work for them. But they are able to call into the hotline frequently to find out if there are any rare birds in the area. If so, it might be worth setting aside normal work and taking the time to go and look for them—so they can add them to their life lists.
Glick, Bruce. 2007. “Christmas Bird Counts in Ohio’s Amish Country.” American Birds 61, The 107th Christmas Bird Count Issue: 26-29