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Mills Biology Professor, bird enthusiast to retire

In a small boat off the California coast, John Harris and his bird-loving trip mates bobbed in rough waters, hoping to catch a glimpse of some seabirds. But everyone on the jostling boat is seasick, and spirits are down.

Beloved Biology Professor, John Harris will be retiring at the end of the semester, leaving a hole in the Mills community. His enthusiasm for bird watching was among his brightest qualities. (Courtesy John Harris)
Beloved Biology Professor, John Harris will be retiring at the end of the semester, leaving a hole in the Mills community. His enthusiasm for bird watching was among his brightest qualities. (Courtesy John Harris)

“I’d never felt so horrible,” Harris said.

But then the day turned around.

“All of sudden somebody yells ‘Short-tailed Albatross!’” Harris recalled. “And this enormous Albatross – I mean this is a thing with a ten foot wing span – comes gliding in over the waves and plops down near the boat and it just dwarfs everything around it.”

As it turns out, this species had not been seen off the California coast for decades until this sighting, and was thought to be extinct just after WWII.

“It was just an incredible sighting,” Harris said, smiling. “All the sick people just woke up.”

When the Mills biology professor tells this story, it is hard not to get enthusiastic about the birds he loves so much. Which is precisely why the announcement of his retirement at the end of this semester is bound to leave a hole in the Mills community.

“He’s probably one of the best-loved faculty on campus,” biology co-department head Lisa Urry said in an email.

Harris has been teaching at Mills since 1986. In that time, he has advised hundreds of students, taught a variety of biology courses, and created one of the departments most popular classes: Birds and Birding, which began in 2002. He is currently the co-department head, as well as the program head of environmental science.

“I felt very fortunate to get the job here,” Harris said.

Harris started at Mills a few years after receiving his PhD from UC Davis, where he studied ecology with a focus on small mammals. Before that, he received his BS from Stanford, where he began as a history major. It was a summer job at a zoo that brought him around to biology.

“It reminded me that a lot of my hobbies as a kid had been outdoors or biology-related, like watching birds or raising tropical fish or collecting fossils,” he said. “And I thought ‘well why don’t I do that?’”

Harris grew up in the Midwest and partially attributes his love of the outdoors to the era in which he grew up.

“Kids played outdoors then. There were no video games,” Harris said. “The big fun was to just go out and wander around outside.”

Though his parents weren’t too interested, both sets of grandparents knew about local birds and supported any participation in outdoor hobbies. His grandmother even belonged to the birding club when she was in college. Harris also joined the Boy Scouts where he went on camping trips and to summer camp.

“Mostly as a kid I was teaching myself to identify birds,” he said.

Though he lost interest in his outdoor hobbies in high school, college brought it back in full force. While at Stanford, he moved into a co-op and began spending time with a roommate who was a birder, and found other birders in his classes.

“Every free moment I would be out someplace looking at [birds],” Harris said.

Harris’s love of birds hasn’t relented since. And many of his other hobbies have grown, too, some with the help of the Mills community.

In the ‘90’s Harris resumed his interest in music, which he hadn’t done since he played trombone in high school. He took recorder lessons on campus and audited a music theory class.

“Getting back into music was totally facilitated by me being here,” Harris said.

Since his initial lessons on the recorder, Harris has picked up the renaissance trombone and joined a local band, Alta Sonora, a renaissance music group. He also played in Mills’ Early Music Ensemble with music professor David Bernstein.

“John is a wonderful colleague and teacher,” Bernstein said in an email. “I am lucky to have interacted with him in several ways beyond our regular Mills duties.”

Harris also regarded his friendships developed within the Mills community as an important part of his experience here.

“One of the things I really liked about being in a small college like this was getting to know colleagues from other departments, and getting a chance to learn stuff,” Harris said.

Bernstein, Harris and philosophy professor Jerry Clegg even guided a trip together through the High Sierra ten years ago. Harris was the trip’s naturalist and, according to Bernstein, “amazed everyone with his knowledge of the flora and fauna of the region.”

“His keen ears were especially impressive,” he said. “John could identify a bird or a squirrel by the calls they made from a long distance away.”

Harris’s mass of knowledge has served as a source of amazement for many on the Mills campus, students and faculty alike.

“[Harris’s] birding class is the best class I’ve ever taken over my academic career,” first-year Hanna Kirkorian said in an email. “He is able to identify every single bird that comes our way during these bird walks.”

Music professor Fred Frith, with whom Harris has participated in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count many times over the last 12 years, also commented on his extensive knowledge.

“I have learned a huge amount from him,” Frith said in an email. “He has an amazing ear, encyclopedic knowledge, and is great fun to work with.”

Along with friendships and his return to music, Harris has also enjoyed the experiences he has gained from his students at Mills.

“It’s fun to communicate with people who are getting interested in things and have their own approach to things,” Harris said. “You’re always learning.”

Having been on an academic schedule for the past 35 years, this constant learning is one of the many things Harris will miss about Mills.

“It’s going to be very strange to have the Fall come around and not be preparing for school,” he laughed.

But he’ll be sure to fill his time. After 20 years of living three miles from campus, Harris and his wife moved to Oakdale in the Central Valley, an area with a large amount of birds, and has since come to enjoy birding in his yard.

“I really like going to a local place and getting to know it by going over and over again.” Harris said. “That’s how you really learn birds and learn songs.”

One of his favorite birds, the phainopepla — a black bird with a “disorganized crest” and red eyes – spends its  winter in the central valley and can be seen hanging out in the mistletoe in Harris’s yard.

“It kind of makes you feel like you’re a part of the same ecological community as the birds,” he said.

Beyond watching in his yard, Harris hopes to spend his free time taking bird trips out of the area, as well as visiting family, writing, diving into research projects — including one about the little-known distribution of the phainopepla — and of course playing music.

“I wish I didn’t live so far away,” Harris said, “because I’d just keep coming back to hang out.”

As of now, the fate of the Birds and Birding class remains to be seen, but the prospect of it leaving isn’t as sad for the community as Harris himself leaving.

“He is really going to be missed,” Urry said. “We’re all in mourning.”