The forest would be quiet if no birds sang except the best.
The state of Ohio has important airspace. It’s part of two different flyways, Atlantic and Mississippi, which are travel routes for bird migration. Think of it as a highway in the sky with exits and overpasses and interchanges, minus the concrete and the signs. And the traffic jams.
In the spring and the fall, thousands of birds travel over Ohio on their journey from far north to far south, often stopping to rest and refuel on the shores of Lake Erie. There’s a three-mile patch of land known as Magee Marsh, where birds will gather for one, two, or three days before resuming the flight. A long boardwalk was built into the marsh to accommodate the bird watchers who come to observe the birds. “Every May, Amish families will hire vans and come to the marsh,” said Cheryl Harner, an environmental activist with a popular blog called Weedpicker’s Journal. “It’s really quite a sight. I often see Amish family groups with many children, including very small children. They are never shouting or running. They seem to be ‘culturally quiet.’ These Amish families have a great reverence and respect for nature.”
Breeding birds can be seen along the walk, Cheryl says, including Great Horned Owls, Carolina Wrens, Tree Swallows, and Prothonotary Warblers. “The birds let us come so close to them. They’re tired from their long flight. They’re not paying attention to humans.” She smiled. “A ‘bad’ day on the boardwalk is still one of the best days a naturalist could have.”
Cheryl is a devoted birder and often goes out to spot a rare bird on an Amish farm. “There seem to be two separate pastimes among the Amish—hunting as families, and bird watching as families. Holmes County Amish are known for their bird watching. They’re serious birders.” She says that a good chase for a rare bird often happens in Amish country. “Amish farms encourage bird population. If a bird lands in an Amish field, it will stay.” Cheryl explains that the Amish use much less pesticide, if at all, than English farmers. “They have a healthier way of farming that allows for insects to survive, and that entices birds.” One example, she says, is the kestrel, a small bird. “Kestrels are declining across America, but the numbers are rising in Ohio near the Amish farms.”
While birding activities continue all year, it’s the Christmas Bird Count season that involves the largest numbers of Amish birders, writes Bruce Glick in American Birds. How did all of this get started? Local birders, according to Bruce, are quick to give credit to influential teachers who have helped students discover the beauty of nature and the wonder of birds—both Amish teachers in private schools and English teachers in public schools. The Christmas Count started in Holmes County in 1989 and quickly caught the imagination and attention of the Amish community. Bruce says that more than 80 percent of the Holmes County Christmas Bird Count participants are Amish birders. “One of the keys to success,” Bruce writes, “is the encouragement of young birders. These youngsters can tag along, gradually learning the birds, and eventually becoming leaders themselves. On the most recent Millersburg Christmas Bird Count were one hundred and thirteen participants, of which thirty were eighteen or younger. Many of these young folks are amazingly good birders already, having spent years learning from older siblings, friends, and parents.”
Amish birding is predominantly a male pursuit, Cheryl says, especially during the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. “It’s only men and sons for the Christmas count. You wouldn’t see Amish women out birding alone, but you’ll often see families birding together on Sundays. Lots and lots of children!” During the Christmas Bird Count, Cheryl says, Amish teenage boys will bird by bike. “They set records of bird sightings. They take it very seriously and will only count the ones they see from their bicycles. If you offer them a ride, they’ll say no.”
Cheryl thinks the Amish are natural birders. “They have a better connection to the land than other people. They have a sense of stewardship. They’re better observers. They listen to nature around them. They’ll notice a different sound or a different look to a bird—even nondescript birds.” Barn owls, for example, are very endangered in Ohio. “The Amish are the keeper of the barn owls. They need farm fields and pastured animals. Most of the barn owls in Ohio are on Amish farms.”
She admires how the Amish model birding to their children. “The children have such a reverence and respect for nature. Even at play, they’re not loud.”
Recently, Cheryl visited her daughter in Florida. “I was flying home from Orlando, where countless ‘English’ children show their lack of appreciation to their parents—even after hundreds of dollars were spent to entertain them at Disneyworld. Could you imagine their reaction if their parents told them the family vacation this year would be heading out to the woods to watch some birds?”
About Suzanne Woods Fisher: She is an author of bestselling fiction and
non-fiction books for Revell about the Old Order Amish. Learn more about Suzanne, her books, and her weekly radio show by stopping by www.suzannewoodsfisher.com. Download the free app, Amish Wisdom, to receive a daily Amish proverb. A moment of peace and calm in a busy day.
This year's Audubon Christmas Bird Count is going on from December 12, 2012 to January 5, 2013. Go to www.audubon.org to learn more.