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Crusader for Birds

Two deer heads and three guns mounted on his study wall prove that he was once a hunter.  But a sign “I’d rather be birding” and the sheer number of bird paintings and paraphernalia in his modest country home signal his first and abiding love.

Ralph K. Bell of Greene County has led a bird-obsessed life.  Piles of bird books and journals cover his large old desk and fill a storage space beside his stairway.  No wonder his wife Betty, now deceased, told folks she belonged to the Sick of Birds Club.  At least that’s what Bell told my husband Bruce and me, with a chuckle, when we visited him on a late April day last year.

After following a succession of winding country roads, we drove into his yard and were met by Bell and his companion dog Laddie.  Eastern meadowlarks sang in his field and nest boxes dotted his yard.  Most were a few of the 22 eastern bluebird nest boxes he now monitors.  Back in 1983, though, when he received the John and Norah Lane Award for Outstanding Contribution to Bluebird Conservation by an Individual from the North American Bluebird Society, he had been monitoring 250 bluebird nest boxes around the county.  But then he had been a mere youngster of 68.

During our visit, we watched in awe as he clambered up an old wooden ladder to the shed roof, opened a trap, and retrieved a European starling that he quickly dispatched.  Starlings, after all, are not natives, and aggressively displace hole-nesting birds such as his beloved bluebirds and the purple martins that live in the two martin houses in his yard.

“Sprightly” barely describes Bell.  At 90, he has more energy than many folks half his age.  When we walked in the woods beside Ten-Mile Creek, he scrambled up a steep slope to look at plants, because, as an all-round naturalist, he also knows his wildflowers.  We followed, our hearts in our mouths, especially during his descent, but he was more nimble than I was.  He did admit that he no longer bands red-tailed hawks because he is “a little too old to climb trees..”

Bell is a master bird-bander.  “When anyone asks me why I band birds, I tell them it is to learn… People with a desire to learn (and are doing something about it) are happier human beings and fulfilling one of the basic needs of life,” Bell once wrote.

Bell has been banding birds since 1954 when he received his bird-banding license. In 1955, for instance, he banded 534 American robins within one quarter of a mile of his home and in 1959, he banded more horned larks, American crows, eastern meadowlarks, purple martins, vesper, Savannah, grasshopper, chipping, field, and song sparrows than any other bird bander.

Bell has also been keeping bird records at his 124-acre farm in Clarksville since 1927 when he recorded an American robin.  He showed us his handwritten records, neatly printed by him in old ledgers, which include a table of contents in the front of each. 

Bell has been watching birds “since I can remember,” encouraged by his father who owned Chester A. Reed’s pioneering bird guide and even subscribed to Bird-Lore for a time.  “I was an oologist when I was a kid,” he told us.  “I took one egg from each nest.”  His father owned a poultry hatchery and although Bell wanted to major in meteorology at Penn State, they had few courses in that subject then.  Instead, he took poultry husbandry and graduate in 1938.  “I’m just an old chicken farmer,” he said, but he also once raised sheep and grew Christmas trees.  The trees he grew not only to finance his son’s and daughter’s college expenses, but also to provide cover and nesting habitat for small birds. 

Because he has lived on the same property all his life, he has an excellent memory for what used to be, in both the bird and human world.  For instance, he recorded his first wood thrush in 1928, but he has especially good banding records of them from 1957 until 1974, and he says that wood thrush numbers are way down.  Most other songbird species have also declined.  Summer tanagers used to nest in his yard, but he thinks that blue jays discouraged them.  However, six to seven eastern towhees still nest there, along with purple martins, eastern bluebirds and chipping sparrows.  Since he doesn’t keep sheep any more, much more underbrush supports a healthy population of Kentucky and hooded warblers.

The woods along the creek used to be a cornfield, and he could remember driving beside it in a horse and buggy when he was a child.  But we waded through a stand of blue-eyed Mary on the day we visited.  Parulas and cerulean warblers sang, and a Louisiana waterthrush foraged beside the creek.  Bell also showed us where a worm-eating warbler had nested on the bank the previous spring. 

We were listening especially for a yellow-throated warbler, a specialty in this southwestern county, and finally we heard its distinctive series of descending slurred notes that end with a sharp upslurred note.  Occasionally, we heard a birdsong that puzzled us, and I was delighted when Bell said, “If you don’t know that it is, it’s a redstart.” That’s what I have been saying lately also because they have such a diversity of songs.

Bell depends heavily on his ears to identify birds because he’s colorblind.  “I don’t see pretty,” he said.  I briefly felt sorry that he could not fully appreciate the beauty of a scarlet tanager or northern cardinal.  On the other hand, to be forced to learn birds by their songs and calls and to still be able to hear them at his age seems almost miraculous.  And although he doesn’t see color, he could still identify by sight the eastern phoebes and rough-winged swallows nesting under a railroad overpass.

In addition to banding birds, Bell records them in a number of different counts.  At the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory, at Dolly Sods, West Virginia, he and other volunteers have done flyover counts of ruby-throated hummingbirds, blue jays, and American goldfinches as well as monarch butterflies and dragonflies since 1990. On August 30, 1993 a momentous 5945 dragonflies flew past, and on September 18, 1991, 1421 monarch butterflies.  The best day for blue jays was October 3, 1999 when they counted 8297.  The ruby-throated hummingbird record was 154 on August 28, 1990, and 872 American goldfinches flew over on September 11, 2002.

Back in 1955 Bell began the Clarksville, Pennsylvania Christmas Bird Count.  In 1966 he started a Breeding Bird Survey route in his area.  Every winter he participates in the Great Backyard Bird County.  This time around he’s only covering four blocks for Pennsylvania’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas he said apologetically. And he still leads bird walks during the annual West Virginia Wildflower Pilgrimage.

West Virginia is almost Bell’s second home.  A longtime member of the Brooks Bird Club in Wheeling, Bell also spends many autumn days each year at the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory, “one of the oldest annually operated bird banding stations in existence in the United States,” according to his daughter, Joan Bell Pattison, who wrote the history of the observatory in a recent addition of The Redstart, the journal of the Brooks Bird Club. 

After studying passerine birds at Dolly Sods for several years, Bell decided to set up a banding station there in 1958, inspired by biologist Chandler S. Robbins’s Operation Recovery–a large-scale banding of migrant birds along the Atlantic Coast.  Those early days at the station were rugged.  At 4,000 feet elevation, they set up mist net lanes to catch the birds near what is now the Red Creek Campground, which, by road, was seven miles from the nearest house in one direction and ten miles in another.  On his first day of banding–September 18, 1958, Bell banded five birds–Nashville warbler, Wilson’s warbler, brown thrasher, gray catbird, and eastern towhee–despite rainy, windy weather.  No formal campground existed then, but there was a spring nearby for water and room to pitch tents.

After five years there, Bell changed the banding site to its permanent position because he had noticed they were missing many birds that flew over the campground in a southwesterly direction.  Following deer trails to the eastern edge of the mountain, he discovered, Pattison writes, “that there were large flights of birds funneling up through a slight gap in the ridge, which formed a natural bowl below the eastern rim of the mountain.” 

On September 17, 1964, Bell wrote in The Redstart, “Unless one has witnessed one of these mass migrations it is impossible to visualize what is happening.  The tree tops below us seemed alive with birds and many leapfrogged over each other as they worked their way up to the rim…over 10,000 birds came up and crossed that gap in one and a half hours that morning.”

Bell set up the banding workplace in a small cave slightly below the east rim of the mountain where the nets were and built rock stairs and a wooden railing to make the steep descent and ascent easier for himself and the many volunteers who helped him.  A large board with hooks held the banding equipment in the cave, and he carved directional arrows on the large flat rock above the cave.

Finally, in 1979, volunteer Le Jay Graffious built a portable banding shed on a level spot above the cave.  After the season, they dismantle it and store it in a building at the bottom of the mountain until the next banding season begins the following August.  Altogether 121 species of birds have been banded at the AFMO, and in 2004 Bell banded the 200,000 bird at the AFMO–a black-throated blue warbler.  By observing Bell and other volunteers there, many people have been turned on to birds and bird-banding through their tireless efforts.

At the behest of the Publications Committee of EBBA News, Bell began writing about his banding activities and other bird studies back in 1964 in a bimonthly column for this journal of the Eastern Bird Banders Association.  He called it “A Bird Bander’s Diary.”  “To me,” he wrote,” migration is the most interesting part of bird study,” and he was delighted to learn, in 1966, that an indigo bunting he had banded in September 1963 had been seen in Montego, Jamaica, and represented the first long-distance recovery of this species.

He also wrote of banding white-winged crossbills that were eating hemlock cones in his yard and of conducting a survey of purple martin boxes in his county in 1966. He admitted that “the bluebird is my favorite bird…probably because a pair immediately took possession of my first try at making bird houses.”  Over the years he researched cowbird parasitism and conducted wide-ranging bird studies on barn swallows, white-crowned sparrows, and a host of other species.

He received the coveted Earl Poole Award from the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology in 1998.  “His untiring field work has contributed much to our understanding of birdlife in the southwestern corner of the state and in neighboring West Virginia,” then president Alan Gregory said when presenting the award.

His work continues.  Although he has slowed down, he certainly has not stopped.  As the epitome of what Cornell University calls the “citizen scientist,” Ralph K. Bell is an inspiration to all of us who strive to make a difference in the natural world.

Sidebar:  From “A Bird Banders Diary”–“November 29, 1965.  I left home early this morning with three of my deer hunting buddies for … northern Pennsylvania…I am a devout conservationist and in defense of the average deer hunter, he is doing mankind and nature in general a service…deer can multiply so rapidly that an entire area can soon be denuded of lower vegetation.  Other wildlife (including birds) suffer as a result…November 30, 1965.  My main interest in deer hunting is the chance to spend some time in a vast remote forest area and enjoy nature at its best–the clear mountain streams, the majestic Hemlock trees, the massive rocks, and the chance to study the birds and animals that inhabit the area.”      

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