Earth, Water, And Sky / Edition 1

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"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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Not stories after all but brief, accessible essays, these instructive writings by ornithologist Johnsgard (a professor at the University of Nebraska) cover the lives, behaviors and habitats of many North American birds, from "The Tree Quail of Mexico" to "The Elusive Musk Duck." (Some first appeared in the magazine Natural History.) The intriguing lead essay describes the collective, synchronized mating dances of grouse, performed in arena-like spaces called "leks," which pose a Darwinian puzzle: why would sexual selection favor a system where males "perform the same displays in exactly the same ways?" Other essays cock an ear for quails' complex duets, distinguish and explain "the evolution of the train of the peacock" and "the even more wonderful ball-and-socket" tail designs of the Great Argus pheasant, and lay out facts about the bustard, the world's heaviest flying bird. Johnsgard's expert knowledge of waterfowl is apparent on every page; he neither talks down to his readers nor assumes technical knowledge. (The titular "sketches" are simply careful drawings of birds.) In the tradition of Konrad Lorenz, Johnsgard often ties neat facts about birds to current theories about the evolution of animal behavior. Sociobiological parallels between pheasants and human beings are, however, mercifully absent. Instead, Johnsgard injects personal asides, describing his rural upbringing in a quick preface and detailing the beautiful (and, often, endangered) habitats where his fascinating avians flourish. Literate bird-watchers will enjoy the details; readers of modern biological essays (Stephen Jay Gould's, say) will find Johnsgard's eminently worthwhile. 25 b&w drawings. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780292740594
  • Publisher: University of Texas Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/1999
  • Series: Corrie Herring Hooks Series
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 188
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.43 (d)

Meet the Author

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

Chapter One



Sacred Place
and the Voices
of Ancestors

NEARLY ALL OF US HAVE SOME SACRED places in our lives, even if they have not been formally sanctified and recognized as such. The most obvious such place might be a family cemetery plot, or possibly an abandoned farmstead, even if the original building that was so important to us may now be missing. One of the important sacred places in my life consists of an unnamed hill overlooking Burchard Lake, in Pawnee County, Nebraska. Nearly every spring since 1961 I have spent at least one morning or evening there, to watch the annual mating displays of the prairie-chickens, which themselves have gathered on that same hilltop for a period probably much longer than the memories of any of the people who have known of the existence of this very special place.

    This annual regeneration of the species is attained through ritualized but competitive male displays that help establish relative social status for every participant. Socially dominant males, which acquire and defend centrally located territories, are somehow recognized by the females and are invariably chosen by them for mating. Additionally, a cultural tradition is evidently passed on to the young and inexperienced birds, who soon learn the location of the display ground from older males.

    As I returned to this hilltop site last week, I was reminded that twenty years ago I took my two sons there on one April morning, erected a small tent in the palepredawn light, and quickly set up my own small photographic blind beside their tent. We were ready just in time for the first arrivals, the males that walked or flew into their mating territories to begin their hypnotic calling and somewhat humanlike dancing behavior, which usually continues at least until sunrise and sometimes beyond, depending on the amount of disturbance they encounter.

    This year, to increase the chances that the birds would start to display without too much delay, l brought along a tape player and a recording of the males' courtship calls that I made more than two decades previously. As I placed the tape in the player, I noticed that I had made that recording on April 7, 1970, and that it had been recorded on the very same hill overlooking Burchard Lake. As the soft but resonant recorded calls of the males were being broadcast out over the newly greening hills, l suddenly realized that these were calls that had been made by the direct ancestors of the very males that I was trying to attract! Furthermore, these living males would be hearing for the first time the voices of their now-deceased great-great-great-grandparents or thereabouts, assuming that each prairie-chicken generation lasts for only about three or four years on average. In this way, these voices from the distant past would be exhorting their own descendants to gather and participate in the activities they once had so enthusiastically engaged in, but that had now been quieted for eternity.

    This powerful realization, that ancestral voices might pass down through subsequent generations and influence them, even though the birds themselves are now dead, made me think of how the same might apply to me. My paternal grandfather was the son of a first-generation Norwegian immigrant, who would impress the value of a penny on me. My maternal grandfather was the son of a Canadian "easterner" who died when I was less than a year old. Yet his voice also spoke to me during my childhood, through my mother's love for English literature and the legacy of natural history books that had been part of his own library but eventually were absorbed into my own reading experience.

    A few weeks ago I invited my granddaughter to accompany me and watch, for her very first time, the act of annual renewal that is played out every spring among every generation of prairie-chickens on the beautiful grass-mantled hilltop above Burchard Lake. Thus, I can personally show my granddaughter some of my own sacred places in Nebraska, and introduce her to one of my very special spring rituals. There may be better reasons for viewing an April sunrise while sitting on an obscure hilltop in eastern Nebraska, but I can't think of one.

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Table of Contents

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

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