Earth, Water, and Sky

[ Natural History ]

Earth, Water, and Sky

A Naturalist's Stories and Sketches

By Paul A. Johnsgard

In these popularly written, often lyrical essays, Johnsgard describes some of his most fascinating encounters with birds.

Number Forty-One

1999

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Paperback

5.5 x 8.5 | 186 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-74059-4

"As I write this, I am sitting in a cabin at Cedar Point Biological Station in southwestern Nebraska.... The glorious elemental mixture of earth, water, and sky around me is the home of nearly three hundred species of birds, and comprises one of my favorite places in the world. Here no radio stations blare out the most recent results of meaningless sports events ... no traffic noises confound the senses. Instead the wind is the unquestioned dominating summer influence. The prairie grasses bend willingly and gracefully before it, and the leaves of the cottonwood trees convert its breezes into soft music."

Paul Johnsgard is one of America's most prominent ornithologists and a world authority on waterfowl behavior. In these popularly written, often lyrical essays, he describes some of his most fascinating encounters with birds, from watching the annual mating displays of prairie-chickens on a hilltop in Pawnee County, Nebraska, to attempting to solve some of the mysteries surrounding Australia's nearly flightless musk duck.

Reflecting his worldwide interests and travels, the birds Johnsgard describes inhabit many parts of the globe. Grouping the birds by the element they frequent most—earth, water, or sky—he weaves a wealth of accurate natural history into personal stories drawn from a lifetime of avian observation. And, as a bonus, Johnsgard's lovely pen-and-ink drawings illustrate each species he describes.

  • Preface
  • I. Earth: Stray Feathers in the Dust
    • Sacred Places and the Voices of Ancestors
    • Dawn Rendezvous on the Lek
    • The Elusive Tree Quails of Mexico
    • Quail Music
    • On Display: The Pheasants
    • Bustards: Stalkers of the Dry Plains
    • Glittering Garments of the Rainbow
  • II. Water: A River of Time
    • Adrift in Time on the Niobrara River
    • The Evolution of Duck Courtship
    • The Elusive Musk Duck
    • The Unlikely Ruddy Duck
    • Torrent Ducks of the Andes
    • Seabirds of the Pribilofs
  • III. Sky: Migrations of the Imagination
    • The Gifts of the Cranes
    • Flight of the Sea Ducks
    • The Triumphant Trumpeters
    • The 6,000-mile Odyssey of a Globe-trotting Bird
    • Where Have All the Curlews Gone?
    • The Geese from beyond the North Wind
  • Suggested Readings
  • Citations for Previously Published Articles
  • Index

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I was born in 1931, in a tiny, dusty village in eastern North Dakota, in the midst of the Great Depression. The village, Christine, then held fewer than a hundred people, mostly of Norwegian descent, and mostly of first- or second-generation Americans. It had a general store (owned and run by my grandfather), a grocery store, a barber shop, a filling station, a cafe, and a bar. The main street was a block long. There was also a train depot and a church, Norwegian Lutheran of course, that was just across the street from our little white house. Dad worked for his father in the general store, and Mother struggled at home with the problems of raising me and my two brothers (one three years older, one six years younger) on a tiny income. I remember the blistering hot summers, sitting by the dusty streets with nothing to do but watch grasshoppers, and trudging to school day after day in winter, often in subzero temperature.

We lived on the western edge of town, and to get to grade school meant walking the length of the town, crossing the railroad tracks, and then walking another few hundred yards (it seemed like miles during winter) along a dirt road leading to the brick schoolhouse well beyond the eastern limits of town. I believe there were only four teaching classrooms on the main floor of the school. The one I remember best had the first three grades in it (no kindergarten), and, since we left town when I was in the third grade, I never saw the others. The only decoration I remember on the classroom wall was a poster for Pepsodent toothpaste sternly advocating regular brushing. There was no library, but a large gymnasium was in the basement. There were four students in my firstgrade class: two girls, another boy, and myself. Our teacher was Miss Hazel Bilstad, a person I remember as being wonderfully beautiful, and apparently quite new at teaching. I also remember that she sent me a picture postcard from Yellowstone Park the summer after first grade, which I cherished greatly. I was extremely shy in those years, and slightly speech-impaired, so I said very little. I was extremely fond of Miss Bilstad, and when I learned several years later that she had died of a brain tumor when only twenty-nine, I never fully recovered from that sadness.

The railroad tracks through town led north and south across the flat, treeless Red River Valley. It was planted to endless fields of spring wheat, but along the right-of-way there were still remnants of prairies, and associated prairie flowers. By the time I was five I would make regular walks out along the tracks, searching for wildflowers to bring home to Mother. I knew the names of only a few, but Mother's books helped. I was badly nearsighted, and had difficulty seeing and identifying birds at any distance. This being the Depression, the thought of being tested for glasses never occurred to anybody, and the nearest optometrist would have been in Fargo, 20 miles and in those days a virtual light-year away.

At some time during the period I was in first or second grade, Miss Bilstad recognized that I was fond of nature, and invited me to stop at her house and see a stuffed bird that she had. I had never seen a stuffed animal of any kind and was eager to do so. When I stopped, she led me to a bell jar, inside which was a mounted male Red-winged Blackbird. It was perched on a branch, with its wings spread enough to see its red epaulets. I was entranced; I had never seen anything so wonderful in my life. Even today, more than sixty years later, I can remember that moment of childhood epiphany.

It must have been at that moment that I became permanently hooked on birds. When I got home I asked Mother about using an antique brass telescope she had brought from her family's farm when she was married. It dated from the mid-1800s, and my great-grandfather had reportedly "liberated" it from the South during Sherman's infamous march through Georgia. It was big, heavy, and clumsy, with one cracked lens, but it was also miraculous. I still have this grand old telescope, and have recently determined that it only has a magnification of about three power and, as compared with modern optics, a very narrow field of view. I didn't own any other optical equipment until I received my first pair of binoculars, as a high school graduation gift.

Mother had been reared on a homestead farm and still had several books on birds and flowers dating from her childhood. These included a copy of Chester Reed's 1912 Color Key to North American Birds, which by then was in tatters, with most of its pages loose or even having fallen out. It had rather primitive color illustrations of hundreds of American birds, but at the time was the only thing of its kind available. It provided my first real guide to identifying birds. By 1934 Roger Peterson's first field guide had also been published, but I knew nothing of such things.

In 1939 my aunt sent me a most wonderful present for Christmas, a copy of J. J. Audubon's Birds of America. This book not only had great color illustrations of birds, but its fine plates also allowed me to identify many plants. I still possess and cherish it. The next spring, when I was still in third grade, we left Christine. Dad had gotten a job in Wahpeton, a much larger town south of Christine, with a wonderful public library. Among the library's treasures was a two-volume set of Thomas Roberts's The Birds of Minnesota, published in 1932. It had been judiciously placed on the reference shelf, where it could be read, but not checked out. That book became my guiding light, as it had wonderful paintings and accounts of all the species of Minnesota birds, the Wood Duck being my special favorite. I referred to it hundreds of times. After I became an adult and left Wahpeton for college, returning home only occasionally, I would always try to visit the library to make certain that this great reference was still safely there. About five years ago I noticed that, although several of my own titles were now listed in the card catalog, there was no trace of The Birds of Minnesota. My heart sank at learning this, but I hoped that perhaps it had been sold at a library sale to some young boy or girl who might treasure it even more than I.

As I write this, I am sitting in a cabin at Cedar Point Biological Station in southwestern Nebraska, where I have taught classes in ornithology nearly every year since 1977. Through my window I can look directly across a grassy ravine, where meadowlarks, Field Sparrows, and Lark Sparrows are now singing, toward the rocky slopes of a cedar-studded cliffside, where the occasional call of a Rock Wren can be heard. Farther up the ravine to my left I can just see the head of a box canyon, where a pair of Black-billed Magpies are nesting, and where the persistent calls of a Common Poorwill ring out like clockwork on most calm, moonlit nights. To my right, I easily scan nearby Keystone Lake, where on a small island near the middle of the lake, a handful of American White Pelicans resemble small white bandages pasted on a blue cloth field. Smaller, starlike white dots are produced by a scattering of Ring-billed Gulls, four Caspian Terns, and a lone Herring Gull. With the aid of a telescope nonbreeding Western Grebes can be seen bobbing on the lake, as can a few Great Blue Herons that are seemingly loitering along the far shoreline. Overhead there is only a scattering of cumulus clouds, but toward the lake I can see hundreds of busily foraging Cliff Swallows, and above the clifftops in the distance ,a few Turkey Vultures drift lazily in the wind. This glorious elemental mixture of earth, water, and sky is the home of nearly three hundred species of birds, and comprises one of my favorite places in the world. Here no radio stations blare out the most recent results of meaningless sports events, few newspapers ever manage to find their way to this outpost of civilization, and no traffic noises confound the senses. Instead the wind is the unquestioned dominating summer influence, the prairie grasses bend willingly and gracefully before it, and the leaves of the cottonwood trees convert its breezes into soft music.

Cedar Point in summer thus presents an idyllic scene, but these superficialities sometimes mask the realities of life and death that occur in the day-to-day struggles for existence among all the resident wildlife. Only a month ago a prolonged period of cold, rainy weather struck just after the Cliff Swallows had returned from their wintering grounds in South America, at a time when the birds were desperate for fresh insect food. The few insects that had already emerged suddenly disappeared, and the swallows died by the uncounted thousands. One of the Cedar Point researchers gathered up to 1,800 swallow carcasses in a short time. Even today, a month later, one can still see the dried-out corpses of swallows that froze or starved while huddling together for warmth in their last-year's adobe nests, their bodies still clinging to their nest interiors like victims of a genocidal slaughter. Similarly, a late-May snowstorm a few years ago literally knocked flocks of Cliff Swallows out of the sky; hundreds of weakened and dying birds could then be seen staggering along roadsides in a futile search for frozen insects. And yesterday my class and I came upon a dead Turkey Vulture lying at the base of an electric power pole; nothing in the past evolutionary history of vultures has warned the birds about the possible dangers of touching live electrical wires!

I can think of several reasons for anybody to begin studying or, at the very least, observing birds. First, it is both tremendously relaxing and yet simultaneously exciting to watch birds. It is relaxing in that familiar birds are much like old friends, each with its characteristic postures, expressions, and idiosyncrasies to watch for and enjoy. It is always fun to casually be able to say something like, "Watch the middle bird; it's getting ready to display," or, "Look at that goose family, it's just about ready to take off." Yet birds seen for the first time offer an exciting appeal and often provide the same mysterious attraction and desire to learn more as in the making of some new human acquaintances. Who cannot remember the first wild Wood Duck that he or she ever saw, or the first flock of Roseate Spoonbills? Then, there is the pure aesthetic appeal of birds; their shapes, colors, vocalization, and behaviors that somehow always seem "just right." While watching a particular bird I have often thought, "This is exactly the kind of animal I would have tried to invent, if I had been assigned to be a design engineer in a bird factory." From this initial appreciation comes a strong desire in many creative people to draw, paint, or photograph wild birds.

The aesthetic beauty of birds is often so great that many people can't dismiss the idea that some kind of creative mind must have been behind, for example, the stunning plumage and displays of a male Greater Bird of Paradise or a Rosebreasted Grosbeak, or the artistically perfect patterning on each of the body feathers of an Emperor Goose. Luckily, Charles Darwin provided us with a logical answer to the question of how birds (and humans) ever evolved a sense of aesthetic beauty. This brings us to another reason for watching birds: they have been so important in helping biologists understand such basic biological phenomena as territoriality, social dominance, pair bonding, and, perhaps most importantly, the processes by which species are formed. Regrettably, birds sometimes also show us how rapidly a species can disappear from the earth, which also may be a "natural" process, but is one that humans have greatly accelerated throughout the world.

Roger Tory Peterson, whose field guides have inspired and assisted millions of would-be bird-identifiers, has noted that birds are often highly sensitive bioindicators of subtle environmental changes. They typically respond dramatically to environmental changes, not only to such direct and obvious forces as the dramatic weather changes mentioned above, but also to such essentially invisible dangers as the slow but deadly insinuation of long-lasting pesticides into our environment during the 1950s and 1960s.

Roger Peterson has also observed that bird-watching (more accurately, birding) has in recent years tended to become a kind of competitive game, as field guides and travel opportunities have become ever more available for remote areas, and high-quality binoculars or high-resolution spotting scopes are being increasingly carried by affluent birders. Among "birders," learning about a particular species or a single bird group isn't the primary goal; instead the main object is to tally as many species as can be identified (seen or heard) in the shortest possible time. I have always tended to dismiss this approach as merely a kind of numerical ornithomania, although it is certainly fun to tally up one's daily bird list and mentally compare it with other earlier visits.

With all these attractive features, it has always been hard for me to understand why everybody doesn't become caught up by the appeal of birds, although if innate ornithophilia were a universal human trait it would tend to result in wholly clogged-up nature preserve trails, and the roads of wildlife refuges would be even more crowded than is now the case. Nevertheless, at the risk of possibly turning a few more people into hard-core bird-watchers, or at least tolerant fellow travelers, I offer this diverse collection of articles, essays, and sketches.

All of the articles appearing here originally were published in national magazines such as Natural History, and all of the introductory essays were likewise originally published as editorials in the Lincoln Journal-Star newspaper. However, minor text changes and updating of information have been needed in some of the articles and essays. The pen-and-ink drawings are all my own. I must thank Ms. Shannon Davies of the University of Texas Press, who originally suggested assembling a retrospective collection of some of my popular writings for publication, and who helped to get the necessary editorial support required to convert it into an actual book.

Ask the average person to define the term "bustard" and you are likely to receive an unpleasant response. Actually, the term "bustard" is simply a combined derivation of two French words, outarde and bistarde, both of which are in turn derived from the Latin avis tarda, meaning "slow bird." Bustards are slow birds as a consequence of their heavy builds and relatively small wings for their body size; indeed, the Great Bustard (Otis tarda) of northern Eurasia is often cited as being the heaviest flying bird in the world. If records of bustard weight obtained early in this century are accurate, this may indeed be true; seemingly reliable reports of adult male Great Bustards weighing as much as 53 pounds are present in the ornithological literature. However, weights of these birds recorded in recent decades rarely exceed 33 pounds, and adult males nowadays average only about 26 pounds, or about the weight of the largest swans and pelicans. Perhaps natural selection has favored smaller adult sizes in recent times. More probably, male bustards don't live long enough now to attain their maximum potential adult weights because male bustards, at least of the largest species, gradually get heavier throughout their lives.

The latter possibility seems a quite likely explanation for the absence of truly large bustards in wild populations. Of the world's twenty-two species of bustards, probably all are declining in numbers, and several, including the Great Bustard, are seriously endangered. Because of their relatively large size and because they make fine eating, bustards have been favored prey by humans since time immemorial, and, in more recent years, they have been the most highly favored quarry of wealthy Arabian falconers. Yet it has been the loss of prairies, steppes, and other arid grassland habitats that has nearly spelled their doom over much of Africa, Eurasia, India, and Australia, where they once were common and widespread. Indeed, as recently as the mid-1700s, the Great Bustards periodically invaded the grainfields of central Europe in such numbers that they virtually covered the fields. These "bustard plagues" were so bad that schools were closed in order that children might help find bustard nests and collect their eggs.

Although hunters were certainly responsible in part for controlling these so-called plagues, the major shifts of land usage from a mixture of native grasslands and open woodlands to an era of intensive cultivation, highly mechanized agriculture, herbicides, pesticides, and all the other earmarks of modern society have increasingly meant the end of historic bustard populations. In one European country after another, the Great Bustard has disappeared during this century, and now these impressive birds are largely limited to the few remaining native steppe areas of central Soviet Asia and China. Similarly, because of losses of native grassland habitats, the almost equally large Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis melanoceps) is now one of India's most endangered bird species. Two of the smaller Indian bustards, the Bengal Florican (Eupodotis bengalensis) and the Lesser Florican (E. indica), are probably as rare or even rarer.

It seems unlikely that zoos can offer a ready means of saving any of the bustards from extinction; they are so difficult to breed in captivity that only about a half-dozen have been bred under those conditions, and just one with any great regularity. Not only are the adults extremely reluctant to lay eggs in captivity, but the young are extremely difficult to rear as well. In fact Oskar Heinroth, the famous German aviculturist and director of the Berlin Zoo prior to World War II, referred to his Great Bustard chicks (which he obtained by hatching wild-taken eggs) as "coffin nails." Even today no zoos in the world have yet been able to develop any self-propagating bustard flocks, despite intensive efforts on the part of some.

One of the most remarkable and visually attractive features of bustards is their amazing courtship display. In many ways, bustards are counterparts of such grassland- and steppe-adapted grouse species as prairie-chickens and Sage Grouse. Besides having similar ecologies, the males of several bustard species aggregate in traditional areas and display in small groups, somewhat like various grassland grouse display at the leks. Adding to the similarities is the fact that competing males appear to exhibit a dominance hierarchy that is probably based on size, age, and experience. They also similarly utilize inflation of the esophagus, or inflatable air sacs that are connected to the esophagus, as visual signals. These sacs also serve as resonating chambers for the deeply pitched male territorial vocalizations. In the larger bustards, such as the Great Bustard, the displaying birds typically stand rather motionless as they gradually inflate themselves during these balloonlike displays. The Great Bustard progressively changes his appearance from a mostly gray and buff-colored bird to a largely white one, as white feather areas on the neck, undertail coverts, underwing coverts, and elsewhere are progressively exposed. In the earlymorning or late-afternoon light, when such displays are typically performed, these displaying birds resemble small beacons of flashing white light that may be visible for a half-mile or so, and their low-pitched calls carry far over the grassy expanses.

The smaller bustards, such as the Bengal Florican, Little Black Bustard, and several others, lack such balloon displays, but many of these, instead, have equally remarkable "rocket flights." In this display, a territorial male suddenly takes flight and, calling all the while, quickly ascends some 30 to 100 feet into the air. At the apex of his flight, he may set his wings and parachute slowly back to earth, while still calling; he may also descend in a dizzy, somersaulting way, with wings and feet flailing the air, almost as if he had suddenly been shot in midflight. Males of many of the small bustards that have such rocket-flight displays have black abdominal coloration, or sharply contrasting black-and-white patterning in their wing feathers. At least one species, the Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax) of Eurasia, also has a pair of sharply tapered and shortened primary feathers that generate a whistling sound during display flights and that supplement his vocalizations. Males of some species have distinctively colored crests, such as the buffy-to-rufous crest of the Rufous-crested Bustard. This crest is depressed and nearly invisible under normal conditions, but can readily be raised so that it resembles a fluffy, pinkish powder puff when the male is in full display. Females of all bustard species are masterfully camouflaged with intricate buff, brown, and blackish patterning on their upperparts. A few female bustards also possess contrasting blackish underparts, at least among those species where males are similarly patterned, a feature that is contrary to the usual condition of paler underparts in birds of sunny areas.

Those who wish to appreciate bustards to the fullest and, perhaps, to see their displays personally must be extremely patient. The birds are usually very shy and are inclined to hide at the slightest provocation. Additionally, their displays are confined to the breeding season and may be performed quite infrequently, often only under ideal conditions. Bustard watching is perhaps akin to waiting to see the Great Pumpkin rise over the pumpkin patch; few people are privileged enough to witness it, but those faithful observers who do so can consider themselves lucky indeed!

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Paul Johnsgard is a Foundation Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.