20 January 2013

Bird Man - Professor Johnsgard

The personal world of birds for Paul A. Johnsgard has been a passion of study, writing and artistic expressions of a life-time.

"Birds are an ecological and evolutionary phenomenon that offer so many opportunities for observation and research," Dr. Johnsgard said. "I have always loved birds first and foremost. With about 10,000 species world-wide, a person can't live long enough to get tired of them," citing his tally of 5-600, as a "tiny drop in the bucket."

Johnsgard's efforts have brought world-wide recognition. In March, he received the National Conservation Achievement Award in Science, from the National Wildlife Federation at Washington D.C. in recognition for efforts to conserve the Platte River. He received the Loren Eiseley Award in 1988, and the Mari Sandoz award in 1984 for his contribution to the literature of Nebraska. There have been academic awards of distinction.

This love-affair with birds began in the Red River valley of southeast North Dakota. He knew wild places outdoors, and his interests were nurtured by Yvonne Johnsgard, his mother, and his father Alfred, taking his son out to hunt game. Young Paul started drawing when he was five on the northern prairies. As a Boy Scout, he carved neckerchief slides, which were mostly ducks. A camera bought in high school soon meant a picture for the cover of the North Dakota outdoor magazine. Taking pictures was as much a passion as drawing, Johnsgard explained.

In the early 1940s, the family bought a lake cottage adjacent to square miles of beech/maple forest to discover and roam. A camera became his companion as he studied waterfowl in the marshes of Lake Traverse. His uncle, Bud Morgan, a game warden, was also a big help in introducing the youngster to the world of waterfowl.

Paul Johnsgard was becoming an ornithologist. His undergraduate major was in zoology and botany at North Dakota State University. From 1953-55, he studied waterfowl behavior to get an M.S. degree at Washington State.

Some of the research results were published in Condor, a national bird journal. Then Charles Sibley, at Cornell University and well-known for avian biogeography studies in Nebraska, suggested the student might also consider Konrad Lorenz's interpretations of bird behavior. The letter included an invitation to pursue a PhD; investigate further the evolutionary value of waterfowl studies.

A post-doctoral stint followed at the Waterfowl Trust, in England. There were about 125 species of swans, ducks or geese from throughout the world to watch. It was birdology for a future monograph on waterfowl behavior.

Johnsgard came to Nebraska after a phone call interview. He accepted a position — without any visit — at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to teach and research in the biological sciences. Paul and his wife Lois, whom he met in graduate school came to town in 1961.

A great diversity of world fowl brought about wide-spread travels. The National Science Foundation funded trips from 1963-1966 to study water fowl in Alaska (eiders), Australia, South America (torrent ducks of the mountains) and the Caribbean (masked duck). Later trips were made to Hudson Bay, Africa, Costa Rica and Europe.

The South America trip was most exciting, "Johnsgard said. "It was arduous and dangerous." The rented jeep lost its brakes once when the bird man and guide were descending a narrow mountain road. "I ran into a road-side brush clump to get stopped." They retied a shoestring to repair the brake pedal, and continued along.

At Oaxaca and Yucatan in Mexico from 1970-72 he went to study quail. His travels included a stop in every town to ask if any of the bearded tree quail, a bird of the eastern Mexico cloud forest, were kept in captivity. Five were found in a pen over a pig sty, and bought for $1 apiece, the price higher since these birds sing loudly in the morning and evening. While going through the countryside on the return to Chiapas, the birds were quiet.

There was a dearth of rooms for a night's lodging, so Johnsgard took a room at the gated Hotel Paradiso, on the outskirts of town. His rate for the night was not the normal hourly scale and did not include the girls with other visitors. At sunrise, the birds voiced a "tremendous chorus," Johnsgard said. His tape of the boisterous bird vocalizations sent to the Cornell University Laboratory of Natural Sounds included the noise of "Homo sapiens" mating behavior in an adjoining room.

Fowl behavior was a central area of interest, since it provided insights in the evolutionary relationships of various species. His books of waterfowl behavior features hundreds of illustrations drawn from photographs. "My studies of waterfowl behavior brought significant contributions to bird taxonomy," he said. "It was also more interesting that the DNA comparisons now used to determine bird taxonomy confirmed my work."


"It is a rare, almost sensual, pleasure to be able to stroll among the almost cathedral-like trees of Fontenelle Forest during the warbler fallouts of early May." — "The Nature of Nebraska"

"The sights and sounds of cranes roosting on the Platte are immeasurable old, but also forever new and variable." — "Earth, Water and Sky"

"Holding the hand of a small grandchild, as a flock of cranes passes overhead, and telling her that is she is very lucky she might also one day show these same sights to her own grandchild is a powerful lesson in faith, hope and love." — "Earth, Water and Sky"

"All wonderful and rare things in this world carry a significant price tag; otherwise they would be neither rare nor so highly valued. The price tag on our cranes is simply this: we must be willing to protect from destruction the wonderful river that crosses Nebraska like a beautiful quicksilver necklace, the Platte River." — "Earth, Water and Sky"

Words, drawings, photographs and wood carvings are Johnsgard creations. "Aesthetics are a driving force for expressing myself," he said. Several years of wood carving was initiated to consider bird decoys as art objects. He carved decoys as fine art, doing 40-50 ducks, geese, swans or hawks. A wood carving of the Trumpeter Swan became part of the Sheldon gallery collection in 1971.

His publication list has about 50 books — the first one in 1965 — and 100 scientific papers. His sketches and photographs illustrate many these. They books are educational references. There are also books that tell a story to inform and interest the reader, or to bring an awareness of birds and their environment.

"My second book was so easy and successful," Johnsgard said, "that I decided to carry on." In the mid-1970s, he worked on two or three books at a time, using a typewriter.

The popular "Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History" was authored with Karin Johnsgard, his daughter. This book has been in print since the early 1980s, with 30-40,000 copies sold. "This is a children's story that gets into the yin and yang of the world," Johnsgard said. "The message is to protect the sweet and beautiful, and dangerous animals."
"Those of the Gray Wind: A story of the Snow Goose" has been translated into several languages. "My popular stories will live on," he said, "but I am driven to do serious reference books."

In the mid-1980s, while seven books were underway, Johnsgard had a heart attack. While recuperating, he learned word processing on an Apple II computer he had purchased for his son Scott. But health considerations forced a cut-back in the number of books being done at a time, considering also the duties of teaching classes.

During a mammalogy field trip, the errant professor was chased and nearly gored by a bison at the state park in the Black Hills. Students watched Johnsgard stalked for a good view for his camera. The beast got irritated and charged. There was time enough for one exposure. The buffalo charged. The professor ran, dropping his camera, and eventually falling to the prairie to avoid a dangerous pair of horns. "It was very, very scary," Johnsgard said. The episode became a part of class lore, while the picture was used for the cover of his book, The Nature of Nebraska.

Johnsgard is a wordsmith, using a typewriter in the early years, saying "an article or letter to the editor will reach thousands." His sage comments are often included in the newspaper.

About 1995, a teacher called "the big honcho of birds in Nebraska," Johnsgard said. Jo D. Blessing taught 4th grade in Elwood, and wanted some bird books. She offered to trade books for a gooseberry pie. Johnsgard visited the school, leaving with the decision to write a book on Nebraska useful to teachers.

His interest gradually broadened to include other wildlife and insects. In the 1990s, his focus turned upon the Great Plains region. "Prairie Birds" and "Great Wildlife of the Great Plains" followed. Teaching ornithology at Cedar Point Biological Station by Lake McConaughy, led to doing "This Fragile Land, A Natural History of the Sandhills," illustrated with classic sketches of grebe antics, dune flora and other special things.

After about 6,000 students in 40 years, Johnsgard officially retired in the spring of 2001. He continues his bird work as emeritus Foundation Regents Professor at the University. He laughs at the moniker emeritus, which is Latin for worn out, just the opposite of Dr. Johnsgard's continued writing and publishing. "I just couldn't stop," he said.

He wrote books about grouse, owls, and other birds; about Great Plains wildlife and the Lewis and Clark expedition. "Prairie Dog Empire, a Saga of the Shortgrass Prairie" was issued in April, 2005. His last Nebraska book, about the Niobrara River, was written in memory of the legacy of reporter Fred Thomas, has its publication pending. A popular-style book about how the Ogallala Sioux relate to the natural world is being written by the professor, still working at his office less than 200 feet away from the essential Manter Hall library. Johnsgard contributes his expertise to state efforts on wild bird conservation and developing bird trails.

After decades of observing the natural world, Professor Johnsgard has a distinct and unique view of birds in Nebraska. "There is no other state with such a variety of features," Johnsgard said. On the Platte River are vast flocks of migratory fowl — especially sandhill cranes — a concentration known throughout the world. The Sandhills of west-central Nebraska are the largest grassland in the western Hemisphere. The Rainwater Basin is along an amazing migratory route. The transition from eastern to western species on the Platte and Niobrara rivers is unique in avian biogeography.

"Birds are wonderfully beautiful," he said. "Preservation of habitats such as the Platte River, tallgrass prairie and wetlands is the challenge for conserving birds for the future."
June, 2005. Bird man. L Magazine, volume 3, pages 38-39. Contributed photos.