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Bye Bye, Bird Count 

Thanksgiving tradition ending with longtime organizer John Hewston stepping down

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Photo by Mark Larson

Retired Humboldt State University professor John Hewston heard the birding call early in life.

Raised in rural corners of Washington state, a young Hewston was more likely to be looking for birds under bushes than tending a fishing line like his fellow elementary school students. He did the same walking home from school, writing down descriptions of what he saw.

By junior high, Hewston had started his first birding newsletter — something the now 93-year-old still does today.

"In those days that wasn't anything anyone did but little old ladies in tennis shoes," he says.

Back then, Hewston says, he was known as the "kooky Hewston kid" for his birding pursuits but his friends, classmates, teachers and family also embraced his passion for all things avian.

When he convinced the kids in his neighborhood to vote for a community bird while he was in high school, the winner was his personal favorite: the Western meadow lark.

It turned out to be a slightly rigged election.

"I found out later they kind of questioned each other, 'What does Johnny like?' and that was my influence. I didn't mean it to be," he says, smiling at the memory as he sat in the living room of his Arcata home amid bookshelves lined with bird books.

Decades later — after a career in natural resource management took him from a public relations role with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the classroom dais at HSU — birding continues to play a central role in his life, having taken him to the far corners of the world in search of the next sighting.

He's also spent the last 25 years coordinating the Thanksgiving Bird Count for 12 western states, including Alaska, and compiling the results of observations from hundreds of participants.

Last year, he received some 345 responses with 131 species reported, which he compiled into a report sent out to contributing birders.

Now, Hewston says, it's time for him to hang up his bird count binoculars — metaphorically at least — and with nobody stepping in to take over, this is slated to be the last round of the 50-year holiday tradition.

"It's just time to do," he says. "Of course, I'm 93 years old."

The count was started by professor Ernest Edward of Sweet Briar College in Virginia in 1966 — the same year Hewston arrived at HSU. He took over the tallying mantel in 1992.

One advantage of the Thanksgiving Bird County is its simplicity: Participants choose a 15-foot diameter-circle — often a portion of their yard that's visible from a window — and spend one hour counting the birds they see.

"It's one count that you can do no matter what the weather is like, and it just takes an hour," Hewston says.

Hewston watches his circle — a terraced portion of his backyard that's dotted with bird feeders of all shapes and sizes — from his kitchen window.

Over the years, he estimates he's seen at least 120 species on the wooded lot where his house sits perched on a hill.

Counts like this one have provided scientists with valuable data on bird populations over the years, according to Cindy Moyer, chair of the HSU Music Department and a member of the Redwood Region Audubon Society.

"They are a good way of collecting data over a long period, so you can see changes over a long period of the time, the granddaddy of them all being the Audubon Christmas Bird Count," she says.

Part of a growing "citizen science" effort, the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count has been collecting sightings for more than a century.

One of the largest repositories of such crowd-sourced information can be found on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, which notes it receives "tens of thousands of bird observations" every day via its citizen science projects.

Those include eBird — which allows birders to track their own lists and share observations — and the Great Backyard Bird Count, both partnerships with the National Audubon Society.

"They trace bird migration and document long-term changes in bird numbers continentwide," the lab states on its website. "The results have been used to create management guidelines for birds, investigate the effects of acid rain and climate change, and advocate for the protection of declining species."

While time may have slowed Hewston's gait a bit, he still counts birds from his kitchen window every day, a routine that can be traced back to his childhood adventures crawling through the brush.

"I didn't take up drinking or smoking or anything like that," Hewston says. "I took up looking for birds."

He has lists of birds from his backyard, birds he's seen in the county and birds he observed at different buildings on the HSU campus.

More recently, he set up a trail camera in his backyard and was pleased to find it captured a shot of "Fred," the neighborhood bear.

Following his "retirement" from the Humboldt State faculty after 21 years, Hewston continued teaching his Bird Awareness class through the university's extension program and for a time with Elderhostel.

Another Elderhostel teacher and fellow birder Gary Bloomfield says Hewston had an intrinsic way of connecting with his students and sharing his passion for the natural world.

Hewston was able to transfer what Bloomfield termed his "ornithusim" during the classes — which he taught for four decades.

"He was welcoming. Encouraging at the beginning level as well as keeping the interest of more experienced birders," says Bloomfield, adding that he incorporated Hewston's teaching style into his own classes.

Bloomfield's wife, Jane Epperson, grew up with Jyl Hewston, one of his three daughters. She recalls how Hewston would take them out birding at the Arcata Marsh back when the now restored area was referred to as "Mt. Trashmore." Epperson says she remembers sort of rolling her eyes at the offer, but went along with the trip. That's when Hewston showed her something that changed her mind: a blue heron viewed through a scope.

"I had never seen anything so beautiful so close up," she says. "It just amazed me and so it's no wonder I ended up marrying a birder."

While the Thanksgiving Bird Count may be drawing to a close, Hewston notes there are still plenty of ways for the growing world of bird lovers to be part of similar efforts.

"It's a cool thing to do now," he says, "which it didn't used to be."

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