Harder to speak on Halstead’s Ruth sisters and their birding expertise

B&W photo of Edna and Alma Ruth and a companion boating on the Little Arkansas River near Halstead

Before you settle in for football on Feb. 11, spend some time with birds and local birding history at Kauffman Museum.

Lorna Harder, Hesston, guest curator for the museum’s new special exhibit, will present “Sisters, Scientists, Birders and Friends” at 3 p.m. in the museum auditorium.

The program is in conjunction with “A Day with the Birds: Community Science & the Audubon Christmas Bird Count,” an exhibit that celebrates the Harvey County connection to the world’s oldest citizen science initiative.

Harder’s program will explore the history of local pioneering birders Dwight Platt, emeritus professor of biology at Bethel College, and the Ruth sisters of Halstead.

Harder will look at how Platt (still living in his 90s in North Newton) and the late Edna and Alma Ruth have passed on their legacy through the Christmas Bird Count, and how birding brings people together. 

Alma Ruth (1882-1971) and Edna Ruth (1888-1968) were born in a rural Kansas home that nurtured curiosity and learning.

Gardening, music, literature and birding all became lifelong pursuits for the sisters and their niece, Ruth Rose (1898-1971), who joined their household in the early 1950s.

The Ruths were professional women for whom birding became an integral part of their daily routine. Beginning in 1942, they maintained 30-plus years of daily birding observation lists on wall calendars and in daily planners and notebooks.

Around 1939, the Ruth sisters expanded their birdwatching to the water, boating with fellow birders on the Little Arkansas River near Halstead.

They recorded bird observations along with their adventures, from log jams to sandy banks.

When the Ruths bought a Ford automobile in 1954, they extended birding outings beyond Kansas. With Pettingil’s Guides to Bird Finding and notebooks in hand, the Ruth Sisters logged 119,000 miles across 32 states.

Over time, the Ruths’ birding expertise led to recognition and opportunities to share their love of birds with others. 

The Ruth sisters’ birding records, like those maintained by a host of citizens for more than a century, provide important information to scientists. These local snapshots reveal changing patterns in the migration, distribution and populations of birds.

The Ruths helped start the Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in Harvey County in 1943, making it the second oldest CBC in Kansas. The CBC is the world’s longest-running citizen science project.

In 1951, Audubon magazine published Edna’s article, “Singer of the Mountains,” in which she shares her observations of a Townsend’s Solitaire, an uncommon winter bird that spent five months in Halstead.

While the details of the Ruths’ story are unique, in a broader sense, what happened in Halstead repeated itself across the country, as community scientists came together to spend a day with the birds.

Regular Kauffman Museum hours are Tues.-Fri. 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 1:30-4:30 p.m., closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission to the special exhibit, “A Day with the Birds,” and permanent exhibits – “Of Land and People,” “Mirror of the Martyrs” and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture” – is $5 for adults, $3 for children ages 6-16, and free to Kauffman Museum members and children under 6. The museum store is open during the museum’s regular hours. See kauffmanmuseum.org or the museum Facebook page for more information.