Zella Lifetime Achievement Award

Eugene Hunn – Zella M. Schulz Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient

By Penny Rose


Eugene Hunn was awarded the Zella M. Schulz Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 Walla Walla WOS conference.  This award reflects outstanding work in the field of ornithology and invaluable contributions to the birding community.  Gene’s lifetime work and passion are reflected in this biography.


Gene’s first real birding was inspired by a Peace Corps colleague, Mike Huxley (of the famous Huxley clan), marooned in a rural village in far western Ethiopia, teaching in the local school. Huxley devoted his weekends to long rambles out from town, returning muddied but raving about the local bird life. Mike transferred to the capital the next year, to be replaced by Nancy, Gene’s wife now of 48 years. He bought a cheap pair of binos and a Peterson East African bird guide (marginally helpful in Ethiopia) and with Nancy started their first life list, with Black Kites, Hammerkops, Bustards, Paradise Flycatchers, mousebirds, hornbills, and Pink-cheeked Cordon Bleus.


Gene and Nancy married and settled in San Francisco (1967) and fell in with the Point Reyes bird banders at Palomarin, explored Yosemite with Dave DeSante’s Free Peninsula University bird class, and chased rarities on the coast with Rich Stallcup. They were the “young turks” of the day in the Bay Area in the early days of listing and chasing of rarities. Gene started grad school at Berkeley in Cultural Anthropology and soon figured out how to combine his vocation with his avocation, to “kill two birds with one stone.” He became a budding ethnobiologist – dedicated to the meticulous documentation of other people’s natural histories, initially in a Mayan Indian community of highland Chiapas, Mexico, for his dissertation, then subsequent studies of Indian cultural ecologies in the interior Pacific Northwest with Yakama and Umatilla elders.


Gene was hired at the University of Washington in 1972, where he taught for 38 years, birding intensely all the while. Birding kept him sane through the stresses of work, providing a meditative escape. The birding scene in Washington in 1972 was quite casual, with just a handful of “serious” birders, quite a contrast with the situation today. Gene set out to visit every birding site described in Terry Wahl and Dennis Paulson’s Bird Finding Guide. His first rarity of note was a Swamp Sparrow at Lake Sammamish State Park, a first for the state. He eventually nagged Dennis Paulson to come out with his camera to document the find. This record and photo appeared in an early issue of Western Birds. Phil Mattocks – living in Bellevue at the time – and Gene then teamed with Terry to publish an annotated checklist of Washington Birds, also published in Western Birds. Gene sent out a mimeographed newsletter for the next few years called The Bird Brain with gripping accounts of his first Flammulated Owl search and site guides to lesser known birding locales.


Meanwhile Gene started new Christmas Bird Counts at Grays Harbor, Chewelah, and Kent-Auburn (with Thais Bock), and the Oaxaca CBC in Mexico. Phil and Gene took over editing the regional report for American Birds and compilation for the Seattle CBC. He teamed with David Wolf and Victor Emanuel to design a two-week fall Washington tour, which he led or co-led for 13 years. Some of his best rare birds resulted from these hyper-intensive fortnights touring the state: firsts included Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Red-throated Pipit, and Blackburnian and Blue-winged Warblers.


About 1980 Gene was drafted to be a Seattle Audubon VP. The then president explained that they needed a birder on the board, to balance the lawyers and activists. He served on the Seattle Audubon board in various capacities, including president, for a dozen years. The first edition of his Birders Guide to Seattle and King County was published in 1982 by SAS as part of their Trailside Series. It took 30 years to sell off or give away all 10,000 copies. The much more colorful revised edition was shepherded to completion by Connie Sidles, editor in chief.


When the Washington Ornithological Society was established Gene joined the WOS Bird Records Review Committee (WBRC), from which he retired when he began a multi-year ethnobiological research project in Oaxaca, Mexico. Some years later, dragooned to serve on the WOS board, and eventually as president, he pushed for term limits for the WBRC. Now several of our own “young turks” ably serve on the WBRC.


Today Gene and Nancy live in Petaluma in Sonoma County on the north edge of San Francisco Bay, just 30 minutes from the county vagrant hotspot at Bodega Bay, and close to their five grandkids, one or more of whom may eventually catch the birding bug. Gene is the field trips coordinator for the Redwood Region Ornithological Society and compiles the Sonoma Valley CBC, contribute to the Sonoma County second Breeding Bird Atlas effort, and enjoys abundant California Towhees, mockingbirds, Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, and Wrentits, not to mention the occasional local rarity.


Gene misses the Washington birds and birders and continues to lurk on Tweeters, with some regret at missing the hobby and the other super rarities discovered since 2010.


Gene Hunn

Petaluma CA