John Weeks—a master of languages and birding

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John Weeks, on the morning of April 18, when, before the hour of 10 a.m., he saw or heard the song of 37 different species of birds at the first viewing platform in the Dismal Brook Wildlife Preserve. Photo by Shirley Murtha, who garnered several bits of bird wisdom in the short time it took to take the picture!

John Weeks, our local bird watcher extraordinaire, is also an inveterate scholar and master of languages. It all started in 1968 when he began his freshman year at Harvard, having graduated from McCluer Senior High School in Florissant, Missouri. Weeks says that “it was an inauspicious time to be enrolled at a university” due to pangs of guilt over being deferred from the draft that would have sent him to Vietnam. Also, he felt out of place with the better-prepared, mostly private-schooled students from the East coast, having come from a public school in a small town in the Midwest.

Since his parents could not afford the entire tuition bill even with help of scholarships that Weeks had been granted, he needed additional income and was fortunate to obtain a plum job at Houghton Library, Harvard’s depository for rare books, prints and manuscripts. He notes: “To hold in my hands a book inscribed with the 17th Century playwright Ben Jonson’s marginal notes was a profound and humbling experience.”

Weeks also was passionate about the Russian language classes in which he enrolled. During high school, he had purchased a Russian grammar book to attempt to teach himself the basics of the language of a country that deeply interested him, but the classes at Harvard really opened his eyes to a world that fascinates him to this day.

Despite his work in the library and the Russian classes, Weeks was pretty unhappy at the school and dropped out in his junior year. For the next five years, he worked at a variety of clerical positions, unable to determine what to do next. Then came a chance meeting in 1976 on the streets of Cambridge with Don Davidson, a former instructor in one of his Russian classes at Harvard who had moved to Amherst College where he was the chairman of the Russian program.

A half hour’s conversation was all it took for Weeks to enroll at Amherst to continue his Russian studies. Although Davidson moved on to another college, he was replaced by another familiar face from Harvard days: Stanley Rabinowitz. Weeks at last felt comfortable and threw himself into his studies, graduating in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in Russian language and literature.

From Massachusetts, Weeks traveled to California to do graduate study in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Berkeley. For the next eight years, he studied and taught Russian and Polish, having spent 1983-84 in Poland on a Fulbright Scholarship. He completed his dissertation in 1987 on the Holy Fool of Russian literature.

In addition to obtaining his PhD, Weeks experienced another life-affirming event when, teaching a class in Polish, he met the woman who would become his wife. Christine Chinni had needed to learn the Polish language to better write her dissertation for her political science degree. “A determined woman, she did not take long to decide that I was the life partner she was looking for. I never stood a chance,” notes Weeks. They were married in 1986 in the Berkeley Rose Garden.

Weeks landed a tenure-track position back at Amherst College, so the couple headed East in 1987. Chris had decided political science was not the path for her and ended up enrolling at Western New England College Law School, graduating in 1991. Her focus was, and continues to be, education labor law. The couple moved to Granby in 2003. She now has her own firm. Weeks’s academic career sputtered, however, and not achieving tenure, he now keeps the books for his wife’s firm and does translation work from time to time, making use of his knowledge of French, Russian and Polish.

As for the birding, Weeks recalls that during a childhood of being attracted to butterflies and praying mantises, he mistakenly brought home a killdeer that he thought was injured. It was just a fledgling that hadn’t yet learned to fly, but the young lad didn’t know that. His father built a pen for it and they fed it. Miraculously, it thrived and was eventually released.

A few years later, during a drive up to the Continental Divide in Colorado with his parents, he was more interested in feeding peanuts to a tame Clark’s Nutcracker and watching the hummingbirds gathered at the feeder outside their cabin than gazing at the scenery. Back home, a neighbor who hunted frequently gifted Weeks with a spotting telescope. It was heavy, difficult to hold steady and had a very narrow field of view, so it was hard to track birds, but it was the best he could do until he was at Harvard, where one of his roommates was an avid and experienced birder.

The first thing Weeks learned from this roommate was that he needed a good pair of binoculars! He would accompany the roommate on his quest to record and analyze the procession of spring migrants at Mount Auburn Cemetery, one of the premier birding sites in North America, right there in Cambridge. Weeks racked up dozens of “life birds” while his roommate collected data.

Weeks says he became a serious birder starting in 1969 when he began accompanying his roommate’s family to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Boston in Newbury. His birding journal lists 20 “life birds” from his first trip there, including his first Northern harrier and snow buntings. He took Chris there soon after they moved to the East Coast. It is one of their favorite birding spots. They were just there this past January and saw four different snowy owls.

When asked what are his other favorite spots, Weeks replied: top of the list – the Granby Land Trust’s Dismal Brook Wildlife Preserve, Blueberry Hill in Granville (his hawk watch site), Great Pond State Forest and Simsbury Meadows in Simsbury, Southwick and Suffield Wildlife Management Areas, Hammonassett Beach State Park and the White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield. Other spots around the country among his favorites are Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California and Adirondack State Park in New York.

What have been some of his most memorable birding moments? Seeing over 3,000 hawks pass by Mt. Tekoa in Russell, Mass. in a single afternoon in September 1998, and getting his 500th North American “life bird” (four wild American flamingos) on the Snake Bight Trail in the Everglades in 2000. In 2020, the best field guide he has ever met led him and Chris on a tour in Belize, where they saw the rarely viewed stygian owl. On the same trip, the guide whistled back to a white hawk vocalizing out of sight high above the tropical canopy. On hearing the guide’s accurate whistle, the bird immediately descended and perched in a tree, wondering, no doubt, where this other bird was!

Weeks does not recall how he came to learn about the Granby Land Trust, but he knows he and Chris joined soon after moving to Granby. He is now beginning his second term on the board of the organization. Starting in 2005 and continuing to this day, he and Chris lead bird walks for Land Trust members during Mother’s Day weekend. Since 2007, these walks have taken place at what is now the Dismal Brook Wildlife Preserve, thanks to the generosity of Jamie Gamble who donated this property to the Land Trust.

If you have never taken a walk specifically to discover and identify birds, there are many great spots in and around Granby to do so. Maybe you will run into John Weeks. If so, you are sure to learn something interesting!