For eight decades, Paul Johnsgard has shared the stories and science of birds, waterfowl and wildlife in drawings, photos, papers and books.
As a 6-year-old, he was drawing the birds that fascinated him as he roamed the woods in North Dakota, reading about them and trying to get a closer look. And his interest and knowledge have only grown from there. He turned 88 on his late June birthday, although he seemed convinced he had turned 89. But he was getting ahead of himself.
On that 88th birthday, Johnsgard brought along a large book heavy with colorful wildlife photographs to an interview at Holmes Lake, one of his favorite places to spend time watching birds. The book was a first copy of the 100th he had authored — "Wyoming Wildlife: A Natural History," with photographs by his longtime friend Thomas Mangelsen.
One hundred books. Way more than one a year published, from the time his first was published at age 34. And he has more in the works, one coming out next year published by the University of Nebraska Press, he said.
At times Johnsgard has worked on seven books at a time. He concedes that may have been a heavy load. He's more comfortable with three at a time.
He knows the subjects so well, the text of his books comes easily, with his acute personal observation and his good recall of the research to reference.
His zeal for the birds, waterfowl and wildlife of not only Nebraska, but the world, has delivered a story-filled life for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor, now with a shock of white hair something akin to the plumage of a snowy egret.
There's the story of discovering the wonder of the sandhill crane migration with graduate students in the early 1960s when one of the students told him he had heard the cranes gathered in Grand Island, something not widely known at the time.
He took a group of students and headed down U.S. 34 to find them. But arriving in Grand Island, they saw nothing. They drove on to Kearney ... nothing there. They continued on to Elm Creek. Still no cranes. So they turned south to cross the Platte, and soon, the birds were everywhere. Thousands of them.
"It was like walking into Oz. I couldn't believe it," he said. "So I immediately became fascinated with cranes. They became my passion."
Since then, he's done five books on the dancing birds, including the imaginative "Those of the Gray Wind," his 14th book, which tells the tale of crane migration through science and narrative. He has been integral in helping publicize the phenomenal Nebraska spring crane migration.
Johnsgard has seen the wildebeests in the Masai Mara, the hundreds of thousands of puffins, murres and murrelets in the Arctic, the birds of east Africa and the Galapagos Islands. But nothing has compared to the cranes. And it keeps getting better, he said.
He grew up in the hot, dusty summers and bitterly cold winters of the whistlestop town of Christine, North Dakota, in the Red River Valley about 20 miles south of Fargo. His mother homesteaded in the tall-grass prairie of southeastern North Dakota, learned a lot about prairie plants and taught him.
His interest in waterfowl, birds and wildlife developed early, influenced not just by his mother, but his first-grade teacher, an aunt, and his mother's cousin, a game warden, who took him on spring duck counts.
That interest was nurtured by walks in the river woods near his small town, and reading whatever bird book he could get his hands on.
"By the time I was 13, I was given a copy of F.H. Kortright's 'Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America,' which I practically memorized," he recalled in his autobiography.
On his eventual way to Nebraska, Johnsgard lived in New York, Washington state and England. When he was looking for a job in the early 1960s, he learned of a need at the University of Nebraska for an ornithologist.
A former colleague told him the university was not a bad place from which to look for another job. A researcher he knew said Nebraska was second only to North Dakota as a duck production area and as prime waterfowl habitat.
He took the job, he said, sight unseen, moved to Nebraska with wife Lois and their children, and launched a career filled with writing, research, teaching wildlife photography, drawing, and world travel, to the Arctic, Australia, South America, Africa.
"So I've had some fun times. Lucky times, actually. Very, very lucky," Johnsgard said.
Nebraska quickly and easily won him over.
"That is, the natural aspects of Nebraska," he said. "We don't have any mountains, but we can live without mountains. They're out in Wyoming, not too hard to get to. But the prairies are just wonderful. ... The wetlands of the Sandhills are just amazing."
He's passed on that love of ornithology and what Nebraska has to offer to his students.
Linda Brown got to know Johnsgard first when she bought a Pioneers Park bird walk from him for her mother, offered as a service project at the Unitarian Church where they both belonged. On that late 1970s day in May, the peak of migration, they saw 55 species with Johnsgard as their guide, one of them a scarlet tanager.
"I will never forget that," she said.
Brown, who was a pharmacist, decided to take an ornithology class from the professor.
"It was rigorous. If people think that a bird class is (an easy) class, they were probably really disappointed," she said. "I was glad I was interested in birds, because I could have had no better teacher."
Brown and Johnsgard became fast friends, sharing their interests in birds, and she helping him edit his books. Ten years ago or so, she went with him and others to the Galapagos Islands so he could prepare for a symposium and art show for Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, and the 150th anniversary of Darwin's book, "The Origin of Species," which came about from Darwin's own visit there.
"That's a testament to the type of advanced thinking he does, forward thinking ... always figuring out how things can fit together," she said. "It's a really lovely brain to have."
Although retired from teaching, he still goes to his office on campus six days a week, working on his manuscripts and photographs, and checking emails. He tries to avoid football Saturdays on campus, however, he said.
He had a running battle with the athletic department most of his 40 years at the university. He assumed athletes should be able to do the same academic work as nonathletes, he said, so he held them to the same standards.
"The result was I failed a fair number of (Coach Bob) Devaney's prized football players," he said. "Finally he wrote me a letter and sent a copy to the university president saying I was banished for life from Memorial Stadium."
He believes he's the only one who holds that distinction.
Johnsgard is in pretty good health still. He survived a heart attack decades ago, and a stroke 15 years ago. He's never smoked or drank alcohol. But just for good measure, he's written his own obituary, thinking that if a person's going to write a will, they'd better write an obituary to go with it.
And when he goes, he'd like family and friends to meet on the Platte and put his ashes in that magical river.
There are times there's probably 2 million or so birds sitting on the Platte in March, he says, including possibly a million geese and a half-million cranes.
"It's been the river of dreams for me," he said. "It's associated with not only the cranes, but with the ducks and geese. And I've canoed it and walked across it. ... There's otters in it now, and beavers, of course. It's just an amazing river."
He proclaims that his life has been a great one.
"I don't think I could have devised a better one," he said. "I've been just about anywhere I've wanted to go. And most of it has been on someone else's dime."