Paul Johnsgard: A Birder’s Road Less Traveled


Paul Johnsgard is an unassuming Great Plains genius whose writing, lecturing, illustrating and photographing of birds and the natural world have earned him and his work high distinction. He is also renowned for his wood carvings of waterfowl. His impressive skill set has resulted in him being called a Renaissance Man by some and a rare bird or a bird of a different feather by others. The best way I found into his story was to frame his deep passion for nature as an extension of the imprinting process that goes on with birds. Everything about where he grew up and how he grew up immersed him in nature and reinforced his fascination with birds and wild things until it became embedded or imprinted in him. He is one of the latest in that ever growing gallery of my profile subjects whose life and work epitomize what I highlight in my writing – “stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions.” Johnsgard’s regard for birds and the lengths he goes to observe, study, describe, illustrate, photograph than and to represent them in art are all about passion and magnificent obsession.

My profile of Johnsgard is the cover story in the July 2016 New Horizons that should be hitting stands and arrving in mailboxes by the end of June.

As an aside, whenever I do one of my new Horizons profiles I am reminded that the people of a certain age I profile in its pages are consistently the most complex, interesting subjects I write about. These people live rich, full lives marked by intellectual rigor, unbound curiosity, joyful work and play and a sense of adventure. They know themselves well enough by age 60 or 70 or 80 or 90 or whenever I get around to them to be comfortable in their own skin and to not much give a damn what anyone else thinks. They are well past pretense and posturing. They are al about living. They own every inch of their humanity, gifts and warts and all. It’s a refreshing and instructive lesson to live large and love hard.

 

2006 (Esquire image)

Paul Johnsgard in 2006 (Esquire image)

 

Paul Johnsgard: A Birder’s Road Less Traveled

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 2016 issue of New Horizons

 

A birder’s beginnings

World-renowned ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, 85, ascribes his passion for birds to something akin to the imprinting process that occurs with the winged creatures he’s made his life’s work.

For the University of Nebraska-Lincoln emeritus professor and author of 82 books, many illustrated with his own drawings and photos, this road-less-traveled life all began as a lad in North Dakota. His earliest memories are of birds and other natural things that captured his imagination while growing up on the edge of prairie country.

“The railroad track went through town and that was probably important because I could walk the railroad track and not get lost, and see birds and flowers,” he recalled. “I was unbelievably lucky I think.”

This Depression-era baby got exposed to the surrounding natural habitats of the Red River and of Lake Lida in Minnesota, where his family summered in a cottage. Those summer idylls gave him free range of unspoiled woods.

He loved the forests, grasslands, flowers, birds. But feather and fowl most fascinated him. Why?

“I don’t know,” he said, pausing a moment. “It’s their sense of freedom – they can fly anywhere and do anything. They have incredible grace. They’re wild. I’m not interested in domestic birds – turkeys and chickens and so on.”

Ah, the wild. From that Arcadian childhood through his adult field work, wild places and things have most captivated him. His appreciation for birds has ever deepened the more he’s observed them. Among other things, he admires their acuity.

Wonderful world of birds

Johnsgard wrote, “I’m absolutely convinced that there is a lot more to what they know and perceive than what humans observe. I honestly think that we are underestimating birds, and certainly other mammals, when we avoid anthropomorphism too rigorously.”

He told the New Horizons, “I even more believe that today. We’re learning things about bird intelligence that were not only unknown but unbelievable just a few years ago, such as their solving fairly complicated problems of putting things together to get at food and things like that that really require some kind of logic. The first person I think that really began to realize that was Irene Pepperberg (Brandeis University professor and Harvard University lecturer), who taught her parrot 300 or 400 words in English and the bird would put them together in not quite sentences but use them in that kind of a logical combination. I think that was one of the first major insights into how smart birds can be. They are remarkably aware of their environment and of any alterations in it, which is a measure of their intelligence.”

He has special admiration for one species – the crane – that has ancient roots and that mates for life. He’s so taken with the Sandhill Crane he’s devoted more words to its study than any other bird.  For decades he’s made a pilgrimage to see and record the annual Sandhill Crane migration in central Nebraska’s Platte River Valley,

“More than any bird I know,” he said, “they are amazingly aware of what’s going on. You don’t want to go anywhere near a crane nest because even if the female’s gone if she sees it has been disturbed she will abandon the nest. The only way you can do it safely is to wait until the nest is hatching – then she will stay there and protect it.”

His favorite bird has varied over time. “I think I was probably first enamored by Wood Ducks, which are so beautiful.  Then I became interested in swans, especially the Trumpeter Swan, and now, of course, cranes. Even though the Whooping Crane is bigger and more beautiful, I think I’m more attracted to the Sandhill Crane. I’ve spent so much time with them. I’ve probably not spent more than 10 hours looking at Whooping Cranes. They’re so rare. The chances of seeing them in Nebraska are remote at best.  But there’s a plethora of Sandhills.”

 

 

Thousands of greater sandhill cranes lift off from their island roosts at dawn along the North Platte River downstream from Oshkosh, Neb.

Thousands of greater sandhill cranes lift off from their island roosts at dawn along the North Platte River downstream from Oshkosh, Neb. (Courtesy/Stephen Jones

 

Sandhill Crane

Photo: usfws

 

 

The great migration

He has a special perch from which to watch the Sandhill Crane migration unfold courtesy of a cabin owned by internationally known wildlife photographer, Tom Mangelsen. The two men go way back. Mangelsen, a Grand Island native who did part of his growing up in Omaha, was a student and field assistant under Johnsgard, who mentored him in the 1970s. These friends and colleagues have collaborated on several projects, including a documentary Mangelsen shot and Johnsgard wrote about the Sandhill Cranes and for a new book A Chorus of Cranes.

Johnsgard is among the ranks who feel the spring migration is one of the greatest shows on Earth. It is a sensory experience to behold between the massive numbers on the ground and in the air and the swell of their trumpeting call.

“It’s a combination of place and sight and sound, all of which are unique,” he said. “To have 50,000 cranes overhead is quite something. Cranes are among the loudest birds in the world, so it just about blows your eardrums out when they’re all screaming. And to have a sunset or a sunrise, as the case may be, and to have this beautiful river flowing in front of you – it just all makes for a unique site in the world. It’s all those things coming together.”

Johnsgard’s prose is usually straightforward but there are times he uses a more literary style if it fits the subject, and he can’t think of anything more deserving than cranes,

“In my book Crane Music there’s a section on the cranes returning to the Platte in the spring that I wrote in the style of a kind of prayer: ‘There’s a season in the heart of Nebraska and there’s a bird in the heart of Nebraska and there’s a place in the heart of Nebraska…’ So those three paragraphs come together and then I wrote – ‘There’s a magical time when the bird and the season and the place all come together.'”

In a CBS Sunday Morning report on the migration Johnsgard described the amplified cacophony made by that many cranes  “as the sounds of a chorus of angels, none of whom could sing on key, but all trying as hard as they can.” The naturalist also described what these majestic birds remind him of. “It’s almost like watching ballet in slow motion, because the wing beats are slow and they move in such an elegant way.”

Johnsgard explained to the New Horizons why the area around Kearney, Nebraska is the epicenter for this mass gathering that goes back before recorded time. An ancestral imperative has  brought the birds yearly through millennia and the presence of humans has not yet disrupted this hard-wired pattern.

“Well, Kearney didn’t do anything to attract it, but the Platte River had become increasingly crowded with vegetation, both upstream and downstream, so all these wonderful sandbars were disappearing and the area around Kearney was one of the last places where the Platte was something like its original form. Lots of bars and islands and not too much disturbance. The birds from the whole upper Platte and even the North Platte were being crowded more and more together and so now you have over 500,000 in an area of no more than 50 miles.

“If it were normal conditions, then in those same 50 miles you might have 40,000 or 50,000.”

The cranes that arrive in March and April, he said, “are not getting as much food as they should be getting, so they’re having to leave the Platte due to food competition before they really have as much fat on them as they should.”

He said conservation measures help by controlling dam water releases and diversions for irrigation, recreation and other uses and therefore keeping steady water levels through the year. The shallow Platte and its surrounding vegetation is a fragile ecosystem that requires monitoring and intervention. The Platte has benefited from a river management agreement between Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska to share the water and maintain enough flow for Whooping Cranes and other  endangered species. The Sandhill Cranes are not endangered.

He expects the compact to be renewed before it expires, but it will require the governors of all three states to re-up. He feels the measures are adequate to protect the cranes and other wildlife that make the migration a wonder of the world.

Even though he’s been going to catch that great display of plumage for years now, it never ceases to enthrall him.

“It just about gives me chills,” he said. “I call it nirvana. It pretty much is like a state of bliss.”

That feeling is shared by many. When Johnsgard took noted nature writer David Quammen out to the Platte for the migration he wasn’t sure what this much-traveled adventurer would make of it since “he’s been everywhere to see the natural world,” said Johnsgard. “I took him out to a blind one late afternoon at the Crane Trust and everything happened perfectly and he said, ‘You know, of all the places I’ve been and all the things I’ve seen this is probably the best time I’ve ever had watching birds.’ He did say there’s a bird sanctuary in India where storks come in in a somewhat similar way but that it’s the only thing that could possibly match what we saw.”

Acclaimed conservationist and chimp expert Jane Goodall has been joining Johnsgard and Mangelsen for crane watching expeditions since about 2000. Even though she’s seen so much of the natural world she told CBS’s Dean Reynolds, “I wasn’t quite prepared for the absolutely unbelievable, glorious spectacle of all these thousands of birds coming in. It’s just unbeatable, and it’s really peaceful.”

 

2007, Spring Creek

2007, Spring Creek

 

A confluence of interest

None of this would have happened for Johnsgard – from hanging out in blinds with celebs to his words reaching general audiences – if not for a string of things that transpired in his youth. His call to be a birder started just as he entered school.

“When I was 5 or 6 I asked Mother for the salt shaker so I could go out and put salt on a Robin’s tail. Do you know that story?” he asked a visitor at his UNL office. “Well, it goes that if you put salt on a bird’s tail it becomes tame, and I wanted to have a tame Robin. I spent a lot of time trying to do that. I wanted to touch them.”

He made his first drawings of birds then, too. But the real origin of his imprinting may be traced to an experience in first grade.

“My first-grade teacher, Hazel Bilstead, had a mounted male Red-winged Blackbird in a glass Victorian bell jar. She lifted the glass and let me touch it and that really captured my attention. I’d never seen anything that beautiful that close. I’ve never forgotten it. I remember it as well as I did that very day. I think that my need to see live birds in detail began at that time. I later dedicated one of my books to Miss Bilstead’s memory.”

His passion got further fed when a camera (Baby Brownie Special) first came into his life at 7 or 8. He’s not been without a camera since. He’s gone through the whole evolution of 35 millimeter models. He shoots digital images today. On one of his office computers alone he estimates he has more than 20,000 archived photographs.

He supports high tech image capture projects like one by the Crane Trust that has camouflaged game cameras programmed to take pictures every half hour or when motion is detected.

“These six weeks or so the birds spend in the Platte Valley are critically important for them to acquire the amount of fat — energy — they need for the rest of their spring and summer activities. So it really is important to get this kind of data,” he told a reporter.

Even though he grew up hunting – it was simply part of the culture he was raised in – he eventually gave up the gun for the camera. “It increasingly bothered me to kill things that I spent hours watching,” he wrote.

The sanctity of nature became more and more impressed upon him the more time he spent in it. Having the sanctuary of those woods near the family lake cottage nourished him.

“I’d wander around there with my dog and chase skunks and get chased by skunks, look for bears. I’d heard there were some. I developed a little wildflower garden from the flowers in the woods and tended it until we finally sold the cottage in 2005. It was still thriving then.”

Many people played a role in nurturing his Thoreau-like rapture.

“My mother’s cousin Bud Morgan was a game warden and by the time I was 12 he realized I really loved birds, so he’d take me along and we’d count ducks and just talk about birds. That really helped a lot actually in directing my studying waterfowl. He taught me how to identify waterfowl.”

Thirsty to know everything he could about birds, Johnsgard practically memorized what books on the subject his town library held. One he used to particularly “delight in” is T.S. Roberts’ two-volume The Birds of Minnesota.

“I thought it remarkable that a little town library carried it because it was an expensive book for the time. It was a wonderful book. Still is.”

As it was readily apparent that young Paul was crazy about birds, his parents and others happily indulged his curiosity by gifting him with books that any birder would be proud to own. As a result, he possess today several first editions of classics,  including Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and  F.H. Kortright’s Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America. He has a later edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.

He got his first field guide in college.

Until recently brought to his attention, Johnsgard said he didn’t realize how so many early life elements reinforced his interest in nature and birds. That background set him off on his odyssey as naturalist, wildlife biologist, birder, author and more.

 

Johnsgard smiling

 

Renaissance man

Tom Mangelsen (Images of Nature), who knows Johnsgard as well as anyone, said of him, “He’s a wonderful man and really inspirational. Nobody’s done that many books on birds. He’s remarkably prolific and a major intellect. It’s been a long, wonderful journey for me. We are dear friends.”

Mangelsen said Johnsgard likes to tell people that while he was not his best student he is his most famous former pupil. The two also enjoy sharing the fact that Johnsgard accepted him as a graduate student not based on his grades, which were poor, but on the family cabin Mangelsen offered him access to.

As far as Mangelsen’s concerned, Johnsgard is a real “Renaissance Man.” Indeed, in addition to being a scientist, educator, author, illustrator and photographer, Johnsgard’s a highly regarded artist. Several of his drawings and wood bird sculptures are in private collections or museums. For his line drawings he works from photo composites and specimens.

“Having photographs makes it possible to draw them accurately. A photograph though won’t give you much more than just an outline so you really need to be able to look at the thing from the front, from the sides, from the top to get a sense for its shape. So I like to have a specimen if I can. Most of the time I’ve been here I’ve had access to a reasonably good collection of stuffed birds. If that doesn’t do it, I can go over to the state museum and look at things.”

This stickler for details notices when people take artistic license or just don’t get it right.

“When I was in London at the National Gallery there was a painting by Rembrandt of a dead black grouse upside down ready to be plucked. It had the wrong number of primary feathers on the wing, so he wasn’t a birder.”

Johnsgard’s waterfowl carvings are much admired. He is self-taught. “I’ve been at it since I was a Boy Scout,” he said. One of his carvings is in the permanent collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln. “It’s a full-sized Trumpeter Swan preening. Up until then it was by far the biggest carving I’d done. It weighed about 50 pounds.”  He based it on a photo he saw in National Geographic. He didn’t know what to do with the carving when he finished it.

“It was so big that the only place I could put it at home was on top of the damn refrigerator. It was gathering dust up there. Sheldon’s then-director, George Neubert, asked if I could loan him some of my decoys for a folk art show, so I put that thing down there and after it was over he asked me if I’d consider selling it. He told me later he thought it was one of the 10 best acquisitions he got during his time as director.

“Audrey Kauders, director of MONA (Museum of Nebraska Art), has been after me for years to give them a carving. Every time I see her, she says, ‘You promised me a carving.’ I’ve gotta do it.”

He is that rare scientist to have crossed over from academia to the mainstream. Some of that attention has come from the prolific number of nature books he’s written. A book he did with his daughter Karin Johnsgard, Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History, is an allegorical-metaphorical work that’s never been out of print from St. Martin’s Press. Some of his straight nature books have been popular with the general public. His essays and articles in NebraskalandNebraska Life and Prairie Fire have enjoyed wide readership. Then there’s the public speaking he does and the media interviews he gives.

“Anyone who has made a trip west to see the Sandhill Cranes is familiar with Paul Johnsgard,” said Julie Masters of Omaha. “His books, lectures and interviews on the subject inspire. To experience the cranes through his eyes is a great gift.”

Masters recently developed a friendship with him that’s enriched her appreciation for nature.

“I happened to be on the UNL campus in January and saw him out walking. We struck up a conversation and have been meeting every few weeks to discuss cranes and all sorts of other birds. It is a great privilege to learn about bird behavior from this highly regarded ornithologist ”

 

Johnsgard and Mangelsen B & W

Paul Johnsgard and Tom Mangelsen, ©Sue Cedarholm

 

Reverence for nature

While Johnsgard appreciates having his work recognized and enjoyed, he could do without the fuss or fame, such as a recent Esquire magazine piece he was part of that featured “Men of Style” from different walks of life. He would much rather commune with wild things than reporters. He’s most at home sitting patiently in a blind watching birds or marveling at the array of wildlife drawn to a water hole on the Serengeti or contemplating the flora and fauna of the High Rockies. These are mystical spots and interludes for him.

“If I had a religion, it would be nature,” he said, “I think watching birds is the most spiritually rewarding thing I do.”

He realizes the notion runs counter to science but doesn’t much care, though he’s quick to point out, “I don’t believe in any god per se, but I have a reverence for what I see in nature, I don’t think those things were created by a god, but they’re god-like aspects of the world, Without wild things and wild places in the world it’d be a pretty dreary place, so I have that maybe Eisley (Loren)-like or Neihardt (John)-like idea of the world.”

Reading Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks “mesmerized” Johnsgard, particularly the appearance of Snow Geese in several of Black Elk’s visions. Johnsgard, who was already considering a book on Snow Geese. felt compelled to respond in a new work that counterpointed what he knew about the biology of that bird with Native American views of it.

“I couldn’t sleep, so I started scribbling the outlines of what became Song of the North Wind. I went to the library and found all I could on the beliefs of the Plains Indians and also the Inuit.

I finally decided I had enough to write a book. I went up to the nesting grounds in Western Hudson Bay before I finished it.”

Rhapsodizing about the sacredness of nature is one thing, just don’t preach to Johnsgard about thou shalt dos and do-nots.

“I don’t go to church and I get pretty upset with people who are overly religious. I have been a member of the Unitarian Church. I went mostly for the good music and the important issues they talked about, but I haven’t been back in a long time. I prefer to spend my Sunday doing other things.”

The concept of a Higher Power, he said, is “something so amorphous it’s hard to put into objective words,” adding, “I think for everybody it’s a pretty personal thing.”

Questions big and small still consume Johnsgard, who juggles three book projects at any given time. In June he submitted the page proofs for his latest, The North American Grouse, Their Biology and Behavior. Now that the retired scholar is freed from teaching, he does whatever books come to mind these days but especially on subjects that he fills a void in.

Having reached the point where he doesn’t care about royalties anymore, he puts his work in the public domain via Digital Commons, where anyone can download his books for free.

 

Johnsgard at brick wall (for Leo)

 

As the bird flies 

Not surprising for an octogenarian of arts and letters, his two-room office on the Lincoln campus is crammed with books as well as art and artifacts from his many travels studying birds across North America, Europe, Africa, South America, Australia. His extensive collection extends to his home.

A prized birding site he’s never been to is in the Himalayas, where the Black Necked Crane resides. “It never comes below 8,000 feet. It’s the last crane in the world I haven’t seen. There’s very few in captivity. I did see a pair at the International Crane Foundation. But the ultimate in birding is to go to the Himalayas to see this incredibly rare bird. I don’t think I’ll make it because my heart isn’t up to those altitudes anymore.

“There’s still four species of waterfowl in the world I haven’t seen and I don’t think I ever will. They’re in places like Madagascar and the East Indies – hard to get to and probably not worth the time and expense and effort to try to do it. But it’s still fun to think about what might be special about them.”

Most of his birding adventures are uneventful but he’s had close calls. A harrowing incident occurred in the Andes. “A guide and I were coming down off an 11,000 foot volcano in a jeep I’d rented when it suddenly lost its brakes on a one-way narrow road looking down on a canyon probably 3,000 feet deep. The road was lined with bushes and I thought the only way I could possibly stop was if I drove into the bushes and used them to slow us down. They finally did and we got the jeep stopped. We looked at the brake connection and where there should have been a bolt there was a leather shoe lace somebody used as a temporary measure. We retied the leather and made it down.”

On other excursions, he said, “I’ve been in really life threatening situations where I should have never gone. The worst place was Oaxaca, Mexico.” Drug cartel-fueled killings and kidnappings happen there. “The biologist who was there before me was macheted to death. I was advised to carry a pistol, so I got one at a pawnshop in Lincoln and as soon as I got home I took it back.” Johnsgard never had reason to use it.

During that same trip he realized as his departure drew near he lacked permits for the birds he’d captured. They were supposed to be quarantined, but he didn’t have the time. “So I thought I’d take a chance,” he said. Wishing to avoid a customs snag, he waited till midnight to access a remote border crossing point. When an inquisitive guard asked what he was carrying in back of the van he was driving Johnsgard acknowledged the birds but left out the part about restrictions on import. The guard then asked “What else you got back there?” and Johnsgard replied, “Well, that’s about it and it’s fine if you check back there, but look out for the snake – he might have escaped,” whereupon the guard whisked him through with, “Go on, get out of here.”

Paul Johnsgard – born smuggler.

He delivered his birds back to Lincoln and got a paper out of it.

A splendid place for birding without any drama is the Waterfowl Trust in England, where Johnsgard studied two years in the 1960s. It holds special meaning because he was befriended by its founder, the late Sir Peter Scott, who became a key figure in his life. Scott was the son of legendary British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, whose second Antarctic expedition ended in tragedy when he and his men died on the return trek after reaching the South Pole.

“Peter was 2 years old at the time,” Johnsgard explains. “The last thing Robert Scott wrote to his wife read, ‘Make the boy interested in natural history” So, growing up, it was sort of incumbent on Peter to become a biologist.”

He did. He also became a renowned wildlife artist. “The art work is what made him famous,” Johnsgard said. “He was a wonderful artist.” Just like his father before him, Peter Scott became a national hero. “He was involved in the Dunkirk extraction of  British troops during World War II, Then he put together this great collection of birds. At the time I went to study at the Wildlife Trust it was the best in the world, Every species has its own unique aspects and that’s part of the fun of studying this. When I had 120 species of waterfowl in England it was like opening 120 gift boxes because they’re all a little different and its fun trying to describe how they are different.”

Scott helped start the World Wildlife Fund.

“He was a great symbol to me I guess of what you could do in art and conservation.”

Johnsgard said his time at the Wildfowl Trust “was incredibly important – it gave me the experience to write books and a world view. I met some of the most famous biologists of the day there.” The Nebraska transplant thought enough of his British counterpart that he and his wife named one of their sons after him. “I dedicated one of my books to him as well. He did a painting as a favor to me for one of my big books. I have all of his big books and he inscribed each one with a watercolor on the title page. He was a very kind and wonderful person. I had the highest possible regard for him.”

Scott pursued his interests up until his death at age 79 in 1989.

 

 

A cradle to the grave creative 

Though officially retired, Johnsgard shows no signs of slowing down at 85. He wakes up most days at 4 a.m. and he either reads or writes at home before going to the office. He’s as busy as ever researching and writing about birds and habitats. Before he ever gets around to writing a book he assembles references. Hundreds of them. Once he starts writing, he’s fast. He admits that his work is “a compulsion.”

He feels his rare triple threat skills to not only write but illustrate and photograph books makes his projects more palatable to publishers. He said mastering things comes with repetition. “I think talent is largely what you put into it in terms of practice.”

He’s been producing things since he was small and he fully expects to continue creating until he dies.

His new friend Julie Masters, professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, views him as a model for health aging.

“As the population ages, we need people who show us that creativity can and does increase with age,” she said. “Paul Johnsgard is someone who serves as an ideal role model for us all. His passion and enthusiasm for life and the beauty of nature allow those of us who are less learned a glimpse into a world that is made even more awesome through his instruction.”

Johnsgard is just grateful he found his calling and stayed true to the road-less-traveled. “I don’t know anybody I’d trade my life with. I’ve been very lucky.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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