Paul Johnsgard, famed ornithologist and author of over fifty books, was born in Fargo on this date in 1931. Growing up in North Dakota, Johnsgard’s love for wildlife was fueled by his forays into the nearby plains and wetlands. His father took him hunting, and his mother encouraged his interests, but his mother’s cousin, “Bud” Morgan, left the largest impression. A North Dakota Game Warden, Bud took Johnsgard on his annual spring waterfowl surveys.
In first grade, Johnsgard’s teacher had a stuffed red-wing blackbird in the classroom that immediately drew his attention. The teacher noticed his curiosity and met his questions with enthusiasm and patience. Years later, Paul dedicated his book From Earth, Water, and Sky to that same Fargo schoolteacher, writing: “In memory of my first grade teacher Hazel Bilstead, who gave me a precious gift, but did not live long enough for me to repay her.”
After finishing grade school, Paul attended NDSU in Fargo, majoring in zoology and botany. He thought he would become a Game Warden, like cousin Bud, but his advisor, Frank Cassel, encouraged him to go into research. He spent a summer completing a comprehensive study of every game refuge in the state and gathering data on waterfowl distributions. He later used this to publish a small booklet on the waterfowl of North Dakota. An adept artist, he even included his own drawings.
With excellent recommendations and a publication under his belt, Johnsgard was recruited to the Master’s program in waterfowl ecology at Washington State. There, he caught the eye of Dr. Charles Sibley, who invited Paul to complete his doctoral work at Cornell. Paul accepted the invitation, and graduated with his PhD in 1959. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship in England, Paul accepted a position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A professor emeritus today, he has managed to write more world monographs of bird groups than any other author. Some of his books have been in print for decades, and others have been translated into three or four languages. He also won an incredible number of awards, including the Nebraska Wildlife Federation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Fondly remembering his North Dakota boyhood, he dedicated one of his earliest books to Frank Cassel, his mentor at NDSU: “To Frank Cassel, who taught me the difference between seeing birds and watching them.”
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme Job
Johnsgard, Paul A. 2005 “Paul Johnsgard: Comprehensive Vita and Bibliography,” Papers in Ornithology, Paper 25.
Curran, Jack. June 2009 “A Profile of Dr. Paul A. Johnsgard,” Prairie Fire: the Progressive Voice of the Great Plains.