Paul Johnsgard is obsessed with birds. He studies them, writes about them, draws them, photographs them, carves wooden sculptures of them, and talks about them with anyone who will listen. He won’t mind me calling him obsessed. He uses the term himself.
Just don’t call him a “birder.”
“I like the term ‘birdwatching,'” says Johnsgard. “It sounds like you’re actually watching them, not just checking them off a list.”
Johnsgard, who earned his master’s degree in wildlife biology at Washington State College in 1955 and taught biology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for 40 years, actually watches them. He has a knack for finding things other observers have missed, or dismissed. Most famously, Johnsgard brought attention to the sandhill cranes that pour into the Platte River valley every spring on their way to breeding grounds in the far north. Others had seen the congregation of cranes, of course, but it was Johnsgard’s 1982 book Those of the Gray Wind that made the rest of the world take notice. Since then central Nebraska has become a springtime travel mecca, as 40,000 “bird tourists” flock to the Platte valley every year to see the show.
This year, I am one of those bird tourists. When I contacted Johnsgard about an interview, he suggested I come to Nebraska in late March. That way I could see the cranes.
He’s arranged for us to stay at a cabin along the Platte owned by a friend and former student. Photographer Joel Sartore will meet us there, as will a film crew from Nebraska public television. Johnsgard is in demand during crane season, and he’s doubling up on interviews.
While in Lincoln, we visit some of his favorite haunts, reaching most of them by foot. Other observers have said Johnsgard’s gangly appearance reminds them of a crane. The comparison holds, but only when he’s standing still. In motion the resemblance disappears. Cranes step delicately, cautiously. Johnsgard strides. Fast. Scrambling to keep up with him, I wonder that his health setbacks—a heart attack in 1985 and a stroke in the late 90s—haven’t slowed him down. Then it occurs to me: maybe they have.
He takes me to the Nebraska State Museum, where we admire fossil mammoths and mastodons that were unearthed from Nebraska fields. We run into the museum’s director in the hall; she says an exhibit he helped organize, of another artist’s bird paintings, is bringing a lot of new visitors into the building. We go to a nature center at the city’s Pioneers Park, where Johnsgard drops off copies of a spiral-bound nature guide he just finished—a “pseudo-book,” he calls it. We go to the Great Plains Art Center, which is closed for the installation of a new show, but Johnsgard calls ahead to get us in. The director shows me some of Johnsgard’s drawings that are part of a traveling exhibit on the natural history of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Invoking the “six degrees of separation” mantra, he recalls that a few months after he and Johnsgard met, they got to talking and realized that the director’s mother received life-saving cancer treatment from a doctor in Phoenix who had been a student of Johnsgard’s. We go to Bluestem Books, a cramped cluster of rooms in a brick storefront under a viaduct, whose owners have just bought the remainders of one of Johnsgard’s books. As soon as we step through the door, Johnsgard is rushed by a short mop of a dog. “That’s Diego,” the woman at the counter tells me. “He lives for Paul’s visits.”
A native of rural North Dakota, Johnsgard grew up watching ducks, geese, and swans in prairie potholes. He started drawing birds almost before he can remember, and still revels in the memory of his family’s move to a town with a library that had the two-volume Birds of Minnesota. For a few years he hunted ducks with his father and older brother, until he decided he enjoyed bagging a photo of a duck more than the duck itself.
Johnsgard came to WSC for graduate work because his older brother Keith was here finishing up a Ph.D. in psychology, and he wanted to work with wildlife biologist Charles Yocom, who had recently published the book, Waterfowl and Their Food Plants in Washington.
Yocom left for another job a couple of weeks after Johnsgard arrived, leaving his new student to fend for himself—distressing at the time, but a benefit in the long run.
“It was very significant, allowing me to learn how to do field work on my own,” Johnsgard says. The O’Sullivan Dam had been completed the year before. A former student of Yocom’s had surveyed the animal life of the area before the dam went in. Johnsgard did the same after the potholes filled. He spent hours every day punting back and forth across Moses Lake in a small rowboat, noting the birds he saw and collecting specimens for the zoology museum on campus.
He went on to the Ph.D. program at Cornell’s Ornithology Laboratory and post-doctoral work at the Wildfowl Trust in England before joining the faculty at Nebraska in 1961. Since then, Johnsgard has written and illustrated nearly 50 books on birds and other wildlife. He’s also published more than 1,500 pen-and-ink drawings, 500 photographs of birds and other wildlife, and 150 scientific papers on bird behavior and taxonomy, while teaching between 7,000 and 8,000 undergraduates.
He says he was one of the first professors at Nebraska to solicit student evaluations of his teaching. I ask if he got any good tips from them. He laughs. “One young man wrote, ‘You should go down to Goodwill and get yourself some better clothes.'” He did.
Johnsgard’s squabbles with the school’s athletic department, especially with football coaches Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne, attained legendary status on campus. He was renowned for expecting student athletes to meet the same classroom standards as other students. He defied “football Saturday” parking rules and drove in to work on game days, was often fined, and one time had his car towed. He attended the odd game whenever a visiting friend wanted to go, but lost his faculty ticket privileges in the 1980s when one guest got carried away cheering for Oklahoma.
He says he might not have come to UNL if he’d known how big football would become here, but Nebraska was only supposed to be a temporary stopover for him anyway. His Ph.D. advisor encouraged him to apply for the job, because it would be a good place from which to look for a better one.
It seemed like a reasonable plan. He needed a job, and Nebraska, like all the plains states, was a waterfowl biologist’s heaven in spring. Fellow grad students at Cornell had visited the Platte valley and come back raving about the birdwatching bonanza. Even so, the state remained underrated as an ornithological destination.
“I was the only professional ornithologist in the state when I got here,” says Johnsgard. As he saw it, that meant the whole state was his to explore. His first spring at the university, he went out to Kearney to see the cranes. He never looked for a job elsewhere.
We head out in Johnsgard’s green Subaru Outback, which is crammed with photo equipment, Goodwill-style sleeping bags, jackets, and boots, and cracker crumbs. A nasty crack loops across the windshield.
A few miles west of Lincoln, the land rises and falls in broad, gentle swells, flatter than the Palouse hills but high enough, Johnsgard says, to make gravity-fed irrigation unfeasible. Since pioneer days, these fields had been home to dryland agriculture, primarily a modest crop of corn.
Invention of center-pivot irrigators in the early 1960s enabled farmers to irrigate the rolling fields. That, along with extensive use of fertilizers that began after World War II, catapulted Nebraska into the top three corn-producing states in the country. More corn production meant more kernels left on the ground after harvest, and more food for the cranes. A survey in the 1940s estimated about 40,000 sandhill cranes migrated through
the Platte valley each spring. By the 1960s, that number had grown to 150,000; and by the late 1990s, to half a million or more.
During the same period, dams and drawdowns of the Platte eliminated the spring floods that had historically scoured the river’s sandbars free of woody sprouts. The cranes, which crowd onto the sandbars at night, lost their roosting spots. Fortunately, the area is also critical habitat for three birds on the Endangered Species List—whooping cranes, piping plovers, and the inland race of the least tern. To protect the endangered birds, sandbars in the 50-mile stretch between Kearney and Grand Island are kept clear of brush by a yearly scraping with bulldozers. Sandhill cranes, along with waterfowl and other shore birds, have been incidental beneficiaries.
We exit I-80 and drive south on the Tom Osborne Expressway, named for the former football coach. Johnsgard laughs. “I don’t think there will ever be a Johnsgard Expressway,” he says. “A Johnsgard Back Alley, maybe.”
We cross the Platte and turn onto a road that parallels the river. Redwinged blackbirds—just males, here before the females to stake out breeding territories—are everywhere. A merlin on a power line scans the ground for mice. Every field seems to have a red-tailed hawk soaring overhead.
Nebraska got hammered by a blizzard a week ago, and Johnsgard is pleased to see snow still in the furrows. The fog-colored cranes show up beautifully against the patches of white. He veers from one side of the road to the other to get a better look. He says that in all his years of gawking at birds from his car, he’s never had an accident, except for running off the road a few times.
We stop to watch a few dozen cranes amid the corn stubble. Meadows wet with snowmelt and spring rains are almost as important for the cranes as sandbars. The long-billed birds rummage in the muddy soil to find snails and other meaty sources of protein. We see some cranes probing so deeply they’re up to their eyeballs in mud. Here and there a crane stops feeding and hops. Its neighbors catch the impulse, and soon several cranes are dancing. One bounces up and down a few times. Another jumps several feet into the air, its bill reaching toward the sky. A third hops, fluffs, picks up a chunk of cornstalk and flings it into the air as it jumps. Then they settle back to the serious business of eating.
A new pair floats in from the west. They tilt sideways, a maneuver Johnsgard says reduces lift and slows them down. As the cranes flutter down, they lower their spindly legs toward the ground. Landing is a soft, graceful affair, as is almost everything I see these birds do.
The cranes will stay in the area for a few weeks before moving on. It only takes them a day to get here from their winter homes in Texas and New Mexico, so they’re usually in pretty good shape when they arrive; but they need to pack on another couple of pounds of fat in order to complete their migration. Many of them nest in northern Canada; some will travel all the way to Siberia.
We turn north, cross the river again, and pull into the lot at the Nebraska Bird Observatory. The center’s director, Heidi Hughes, worked as press secretary for U.S. representative Don Bonker (D, Washington) in the 1980s. She says she sought the job because she liked Bonker’s stance on environmental issues.
“And you’re still doing environmental work,” I say.
“Wildlife,” she corrects me. “I work for wildlife.” Too many people in the environmental movement are too strident for her, she explains. “I want to be positive, not preachy.”
It’s an attitude shared by Johnsgard. Despite his concern for the river and the birds, his public persona is decidedly low-key. He writes opinion pieces for newspapers and sends letters to congresspeople, but has testified before the Nebraska legislature only once.
“I try to avoid standing up and doing that kind of thing,” he says. “I think I can be more efficient reaching people through my writing.”
That’s why the great prairie chicken battle of 2000 surprised everyone. When the state announced a lottery to award 300 permits to hunt prairie chickens in an area where Johnsgard feared the population couldn’t bear such pressure, he called on non-hunters to apply for the permits.
“Game and Parks of course never figured that anyone would apply for those permits who wasn’t intending to shoot the hell out of prairie chickens,” he says. Game and Parks figured wrong; about a third of the permits went to people who promptly tossed them in the trash. The state has since offered only very limited hunting in the area.
It was one victory in a long, mostly losing struggle. Hughes thinks prairie ecosystems like the Platte valley are in trouble, with less than 1 percent of the original acreage remaining, because most people have no personal connection to them. Although homesteaders and amber waves of grain are part of our national self-image, she says, few Americans have the kind of direct experience with the prairie that would make them care deeply about it.
“You have to sit in the fields and listen to the bobolinks and meadowlarks. You have to see the cranes,” she says. “When you get the shivers, you don’t need to be told the habitat is important.”
We grab lunch at a diner and then drive on to the cabin, which is set among cottonwoods a couple hundred yards from the river. Photographer Sartore and the film crew arrive soon after. Just down the lane from the cabin, a two-track leads through a band of trees to a small rise along the river. One large sandbar is within pitching distance; others dot the main channel.
We all walk here around 4 p.m. to scout the area. Johnsgard says one of the biggest roosts on the river is about a quarter of a mile downstream. It hosts twenty to thirty thousand cranes, possibly more. Since we won’t be in a blind, this is a good vantage point. If we were closer to the roost, we might spook the birds. Johnsgard says the presence of an eagle, a human, or other perceived threat can keep them circling long into the evening.
The TV crew sets up its camera and sound equipment, and asks us to walk down to a point of land at the base of the hill and then back along the water. A pair of yellowlegs skitters along the sandy shoreline, and just downstream, a group of whitetail deer edges across the water. I count eight, nine. The shapes shift, and I lose track. Maybe a dozen.
Soon after we get back to the hill the cranes start coming, a few small groups flying low out of the southwest. Pairs, pairs with a nearly grown youngster, a few singles. It’s too late now to go back to the cabin for the warm coat and windpants Johnsgard insisted I bring. The show is on.
The cranes are noisy, adults with their hollow, rattling call, youngsters with a higher-pitched version. They veer away when they spot us, but some stay close enough that we can hear the air whiffling through their feathers as they pass.
After a prelude of small groups, the full parade starts. We don’t matter any more; the cranes come in lines that reach almost a full 180 degrees, perhaps a quarter mile across. Line after line, wave on wave, half a minute or a minute between them, with more lines emerging from the distance as far as we can see. They come, and come, and come. My throat tightens, and I clap my hand over my mouth. I am lost.
In a gap between flights I try to jot a few notes. My writing is jerky and erratic. I’m shaking violently. It’s 7 p.m., a little past sunset. We can’t see the roost, but even a quarter-mile away, the din swamps our attempts to speak. Suddenly I realize it isn’t terribly cold out. It’s not windy, and I’ve certainly been in colder situations without shivering like this. Then I remember what Heidi Hughes told me.
I take a few deep breaths, and the shaking subsides. I scan the sandbars across from where we’re standing. Nobody there; we’re too close. Through the binoculars
I see a pale gray feather drop to the water from the empty sky.
The next morning, Johnsgard calls to me through the bedroom door. It’s already ten to 6. I’d set the clock radio for 5:30, but the station it was tuned to hasn’t started its broadcast day yet. I dress in a rush. Johnsgard has said the birds usually take off all at once in the morning. A few cranes are already in the air; we hear their rustling calls. We step outside into a cold, stiff wind. That will delay the birds, Johnsgard says. They don’t like the wind.
I walk down the lane to a spot near our viewing post from the night before. Sandbars in the main channel right across from where we were last night look different this morning. I swivel the binoculars left to right. Every inch of sandbar is covered in cranes.
Scattered cranes hop a foot or two into the air. Pop, pop, pop. Like a pot starting to boil. They’re eager for breakfast, but after testing the wind, most of them settle back into the group. A few singles leave. I’m surprised they head south and southwest, into the wind; I expected they’d let the wind carry them north of the river.
Occasionally a single or small group flies back toward the river, as if they’d gone out earlier and then changed their minds. A threesome flies over, the smaller juvenile piping in front. I hear a lot of noise from the main roost and see a few dozen birds in the air, but most are still down.
Johnsgard swings by me on his way to another viewing spot.
“I told you they’d leave all at once, and they’re not doing that,” he says. “It’s too cold, they don’t want to leave.”
Still, the day is moving on, and the crowd thins as birds straggle out in twos and threes. An hour later, the sun is beginning to highlight their pale necks, and enough have left that in some areas I can count individual birds.
It is cold this morning. I’m grateful the wind is at my back. Even so, and with good gloves on, my fingers are getting numb. Johnsgard joins me.
“Had enough?” he asks.
I don’t know how to answer that.
We spend a few hours on the back roads, this time with me driving. We stop wherever the cranes are close enough to the road for Johnsgard to get a good shot. He’s using his longest lens, and when he aims through my window, he has me brace my left arm on the steering wheel so he can rest the lens on it. Some of the cranes are hunkered down on the ground, not eating. Those that are standing seem frisky. They hop, toss cornstalks, ruffle their wings at each other. Johnsgard thinks he gets some good images.
I tell him that in four days of conversation, I’ve only heard one thing from him that I don’t believe. “Just one?” he laughs. I don’t buy that he doesn’t have another book project in mind. He says he thinks the manuscript he just sent to his agent might need major revision, so he’s reluctant to delve into another right away. A minute later he admits he has been mulling over a book on sandhill cranes. His last one, Crane Music, came out in 1991; it’s about time for a new one.
Back in Lincoln, we go to Linda Brown’s house so Johnsgard can use her computer to download the hundreds of photos he shot while we were out at the river. He was right, he did get some good images. Brown is a former student, now friend and colleague. She and Johnsgard review maps for a new Birding Trails website underwritten by the state’s Department of Travel and Tourism. They’re members of the committee that launched the site in 2005. Johnsgard provided most of the text on the site. The work, the fascination with birds, simply doesn’t end.
Earlier in the week Johnsgard told me about his heart attack. He’d been in his lab at the time and had no idea what was happening. He was in his 50s, lean and active, with no reason to think pain in his chest meant “heart attack.” His graduate student ignored his objections and called for an ambulance, which likely saved his life. He remembers talking with the EMTs as they loaded him up.
“They asked me, which hospital do you want to go to? I knew St. Elizabeth had a duck pond, so I said, ‘Take me to St. Elizabeth. I can watch the ducks.'”