Bird club helps college hopefuls take flight

This Merlin was seen at the Clarksville Christmas bird count in Franklin Township in December. (Photo courtesy of Marjorie Howard)

Now through March 31, county youth looking to supplement their college funding might consider applying for a scholarship awarded by the Ralph K. Bell Bird Club of Greene County.

Open to all seniors in high school, including those in private schools, home schooled or college freshmen and sophomores, the Ralph K. Bell and Judy Cholak Memorial Scholarships have only a few requirements. Applicants must be residents of Greene County, have a G.P.A. of 3.0 or more and be of good moral standing. They need not be bird watchers or enthusiasts to apply.

“In order to get younger people interested in birds and birding, the club discussed offering the scholarships at one of our meetings,” said Marjorie Howard, president and founder of the bird club. “After we voted affirmatively in favor of the proposal, we decided to proceed and awarded the first scholarship in 2009.”

To be eligible for either the $1,000 or $500 scholarship awarded annually, candidates must complete an application and submit it along with a 500 word or more essay on winter birds of Greene County. Applications must also include a letter of recommendation, and must be mailed by March 31 to The Ralph K. Bell and Judy Cholak Memorial Scholarship Fund Entry, 149 Preachers Road, Waynesburg, PA 15370.

Funds for the scholarships come from a portion of the members’ annual dues. Three dollars comes from each of the single member dues of $15 a year and $8 comes from the $25 family membership dues. Some of the scholarship funding came by way of the family of Judy Cholak who requested in her obituary that friends donate money to the bird club scholarship fund in lieu of flowers. Another portion of the funding comes from the donations collected during the annual Covered Bridge Festival at the White Covered Bridge in Carmichaels.

“From time to time, bird club members also make additional donations,” Howard said.

Although organizers sent the applications to all the Greene County school districts, they are also available by emailing rkbbirdclub@yahoo.com.

After receiving all the applications and checking them for completion, club president Marjorie Howard assigns each a number to keep the applicants anonymous. Once the applications have been numbered, she faxes them to a panel of seven judges made up of Bell’s daughter, son and grandson, as well as four bird cub members.

The judges then report back to Howard by April 15, and the winners are notified shortly thereafter. Sometime at the end of April, the club presents a check to the winners at a luncheon.

“The most applications we ever received was 23, and over the years, we’ve had winners from every school district but Southeastern Greene,” Howard said.

The club is named after Ralph K. Bell who resided on a farm just outside Clarksville. Bell started to keep records of birds at the age of 25 and organized the annual Christmas bird count in the late 1950s. Bell retired after 30 years of service as a board member of the Greene County Conservation District, and, in 2005, Howard created the bird club and named it in memory of Bell’s service.

With a current membership of 61, the bird club holds a Memorial Walk on the third Saturday of May, which starts at Bell’s farm house and proceeds a mile down to the bridge that crosses Ten Mile Creek. The public is invited to participate in the event and identify different bird species along the way.

In the spring, the club organizes field trips to Moraine State Park in Butler County and the annual Enlow Fork Wildlife and Wildflower Walk in Greene County at the end of April. The club also participates in the Winter Raptor Survey, the Great Backyard Bird Count, scheduled this year from February 14-17, and the Christmas and Spring Bird Counts.

“We invite youngsters to join in on all our events,” Howard said. “We also encourage them to get involved with the Great Backyard Bird Count, which they can do at their own home. In the past, we’ve had several youngsters help out or participate in our bird counts.”

Past events for younger bird enthusiasts include a program on bird banding at a school in Morgantown and a bird camp organized with the Penn State Extension Office in 2018. The bird club held the camp for kids at the Boy Scout building in Rices Landing and offered 12 different lessons including the subjects of identifying birds by their feathers and eggs and building blue bird boxes.

For more information on the bird club, its activities and scholarships, email rkbbirdclub@yahoo.com.

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