by Jack Ludkey
Little electronic sailboats flit across Lake Tomahawk in Black Mountain as some people walk laps around the man-made lake and others play tennis nearby. Alone on a park bench sits James Hewitt with a duck in his lap. The wind carries his bag of Ritz Crackers toward me.
“Could you grab that?” Hewitt asks.
I return the crackers to him and inquire about the duck. It’s a drake, he informs me, which is the proper term for a male duck. For nearly 20 years, Hewitt has visited the park, developing a unique relationship with the area’s feathered critters.
Sadly, he notes, many of the ducks are disappearing. “A lot of them get hit by cars,” he says.
Hewitt stares out onto the lake without blinking. He’s wearing a custom shirt that reads, “Duck Whisperer.” Courtney King, the co-owner of nearby Hey Hey Cupcake, had it made for him, Hewitt tells me. The shirt also features Hewitt’s name on the back, as well as a picture of Nika, one of Hewitt’s many goose friends.
I sit next to Hewitt, who brings out a bag of honey wheat bread. Passersby wave and say hi to him as he feeds the ducks. Meanwhile, inside the nearby Parks and Recreation office, a small photo of Hewitt sits framed. Melinda Polites, a staff member, says Hewitt has helped remove hooks and wires from a number of ducks. Early in my visit, it becomes apparent that Hewitt is a local celebrity of sorts.
Though Polites and others know Hewitt as Duck Whisperer, he has gone by many names during his 20 years at Lake Tomahawk: Duck Guru, Goose King and Silly Goose, to name a few. He carries these nicknames on a folded sheet of paper in his pocket. “I’ve been waiting for someone to call me ‘Goose God,’ since they already called me ‘Duck God,’” he says with a proud smile.
According to Hewitt, the birds at Lake Tomahawk have a tough time, “Some people don’t really like these guys,” he explains. “Kids used to torment them. Hit them with rocks and sticks. I got on their case about it, and they stopped.”
Hewitt’s favorite duck, Maya, was attacked by a dog earlier this year and has been taken to a bird sanctuary, which doesn’t allow visitors. Hewitt hasn’t seen her since. “She would fuss if any girl talked to me,” he says. “And she would peck at me until I put the bandana around her neck.”
Though he is often seen petting the ducks, Hewitt says he is more spiritually connected to the geese. His favorite goose, Draco, disappeared in 2013. Hewitt still dreams of the lost goose and writes down these reveries in a journal that never leaves his room.
“He just loves them,” Jamie Davis, Hewitt’s mother, tells me a few days later. “They’re his buddies, and he wouldn’t hurt them for anything in the world. And I’m sure they’ve been there for him for things he was going through that I wasn’t even aware of. These ducks have a rough life; a lot of people don’t really care about them. People don’t care about much anymore.”
A parakeet named Dude
At the lake, Hewitt and I leave the bench and head closer to a tree. The ducks sit around us, taking a midday nap. Hewitt tells me when he’s not by the water, he’s often at the Black Mountain Public Library, where he researches animals and ancient gods. As he talks, Hewitt empties his pockets and multiple backpacks. All are filled with documents and notes on his feathered friends.
Hewitt shares articles on various bird legends, as well as printed selfies with local birds and a list of names for each of the winged creatures. Another sheet of paper is from an online spirit animal quiz. Not surprisingly, Hewitt was paired with a goose.
Hewitt says his interest in birds began as a child, when he got a parakeet named Dude. Dude could speak and mimic the phone.
“That’s what got me hooked on birds,” he says.
“My dad even taught him the F-word,” Hewitt continues. “We definitely didn’t want him to learn that. He forgot how to say half of his words when he burned his feet on Mom’s frying pan.”
As we chat, Hewitt observes a group of children walk by. They’re all gripping phones and tablets. “There are people that will walk right by a bird that they will never ever see again because they’re looking at their phones,” he says. “I mean, I look at my phone a lot too, but I am more interested in the nature.”
By now, Hewitt has run out of bread for the ducks, who all remain asleep anyway.
“Well, if no one wants to sit next to me, I might as well get going,” Hewitt says.
He picks up his things, placing them into his bag, and walks through the sleeping ducks who barely budge as he makes his way toward town.