Johnsgard, renowned ornithologist, remembered for prolific career

· 5 min read

Johnsgard, renowned ornithologist, remembered for prolific career

Paul Johnsgard
Paul Johnsgard

Paul Johnsgard, 89, emeritus professor of biological sciences, renowned ornithologist, and prolific author, died May 28.

In his nearly 60 years as a member of the faculty at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Johnsgard’s avian-focused research and creative activity led him to become a global authority on cranes, pheasants and annual bird migrations through the Cornhusker State. He authored more than 100 books on birds, ecology and natural history.

"Emeritus Professor Paul Johnsgard was a highly respected member of the (School of Biological Sciences) community," said Michael Herman, director of biological sciences. "He was an accomplished educator, expert ornithologist and writer with an amazing work ethic. In fact, he was working on his 105th book right up to his death.

"Paul will have lasting legacy here at UNL and will be greatly missed."

Johnsgard was most fond of Sandhill cranes, which are featured in his most recent book, “S is for Sandhill: A Crane Alphabet.” The book — which published digitally in April and will be available in print later this year — features Johnsgard’s prose and art in a celebration of the cranes which stop along central Nebraska riverways during annual migrations.

In the “S is for Sandhill” acknowledgements, Johnsgard credited the cranes for their lasting influence on his life and career.

“Above all, I must declare gratitude to the cranes, who have made my life rich, exciting and wonderful,” Johnsgard wrote. “(The cranes) have exposed me to an additional dimension of reality and perception that I could not have imagined possible for a human to experience.”

Excerpt from Paul Johnsgard's "S is for Sandhill: A Crane Alphabet." A is for alpha, meaning first, or the best. If you are talking of birds, I'll choose cranes over the rest.
Paul Johnsgard | Courtesy
Paul Johnsgard's most recent book, "S is for Sandhill: A Crane Alphabet," features easy to digest information about the iconic cranes. It published electronically in April and will be available in print later this summer.

News of Johnsgard’s death drew memorials from fellow wildlife ecologists.

Larkin Powell, professor of natural resources and interim associate dean for the College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences, said Johnsgard was especially revered among ornithologists.

“I think he’s known by more people around the world as a University of Nebraska faculty member than anyone else,” Powell said.

Dai Shizuka, assistant professor of biological sciences, tweeted about Johnsgard’s dedication to scholarship and sandhill cranes.

“He was a leading ornithologist who wrote over 100 books cataloguing natural history,” Shizuka wrote. “I’ll miss seeing him and chatting as he came to his office to write every day until the pandemic.”

And, Johnsgard’s passion for birds and his impact on young researchers was reflected in a tweet by Luke Campillo, an evolutionary biologist and graduate student at the University of Hawaii.

“I met Paul Johnsgard at my very first ornithological meeting in Kearney, Nebraska, in 2010,” Campillo wrote. “What a treat to meet such a steward of natural history at my first meeting.”

As reported by the Lincoln Journal-Star, Ann Bouma, Johngard’s daughter and a lecturer in educational studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, said her father was “always busy, always going, always active, even up to his last few months.”

“He just loved sharing knowledge and his wonder of birds with others,” Bouma said. “And he was always trying to expose more and more people to the idea of nature.”

Born in Fargo, North Dakota, on June 28, 1931, Johnsgard was introduced as a youth to the study of birds by a distant cousin who served as a game warden. He attended junior college in Wahpeton before transferring to North Dakota Agricultural College, which is North Dakota State University today.

He joined the Nebraska faculty in 1961 after earning degrees in botany and zoology, and completing a master’s degree at Washington State University and a doctorate at Cornell.

In his nearly 60 years at Nebraska, Johnsgard earned the university’s highest honors including the Distinguished Teaching Award, Outstanding Research and Creative Activity Award, and an honorary Doctor of Science degree. Major national recognitions included a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the National Wildlife Federation’s National Conservation Achievement Award, the National Audubon Society’s Charles H. Callahan Award, and the American Ornithologists’ Society’s Ralph Schreiber Conservation Award, all in recognition of his ornithological research, writing and conservation work.

Johnsgard was preceded in death by his parents, his son Jay Erik, and grandson Scott Kenneth Jr. He is survived by his wife Lois and their other three children as well as by six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A celebration of life event will be held at 3 p.m. June 20 at the Lincoln Unitarian Church, 6300 A St. Links for virtual attendance, as well as submission of online condolences and remembrances, available on the Roper and Sons website. Cards may be sent to Ann Bouma, 5831 Sunrise Road, Lincoln, NE 68510-4050, or In lieu of flowers, memorials should be directed to Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center, P. O. Box 117, Denton, NE, 68339, or L. A. Rowe Sanctuary, 44450 Elm Island Road, Gibbon, NE 68440.

Recent News