For the Birds Radio Program: Jeff Sonstegard

Original Air Date: Sept. 29, 1995

Today Laura Erickson remembers Jeff Sonstegard, who died two weeks ago. 4:23 (Date verified)

Audio missing


A few weeks ago, I received a young female nighthawk who had been hit by a car and had an injured wing. After she recovered, I took her outside every day to work the wing, watching her get stronger and stronger. By Friday, September 8, she was flying well, and I decided she should be set free as soon as we had good weather.

The next Saturday, I was a speaker at a bluebird conference in the Twin Cities, and spent much of the drive home kicking myself for not bringing her along to release down there, 150 miles closer to Brazil on a fine, warm day. When I got home, there was an urgent phone call telling me that my dear friend, Jeff Sonstegard, the illustrator of my book For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide was dying of pancreatic cancer. He was just 34 years old. He had been released from the hospital the day before, and was home in Longville, 120 miles from my house, until Monday, when his brother would bring him to the university hospital to see if they could buy him some time.

First thing the next morning, I rushed out to Longville to see him, and thanks to fate or destiny or simple good luck, I had the nighthawk to bring him. Jeff had drawn dozens of them for me, all wonderful, a couple exquisitely perfect, yet he had never seen a living one. He based his illustrations on photographs from me and an intuitive sense of nighthawks. These gentle-spirited, sweet-natured, unassuming birds are much like Jeff himself, so it was fitting that he should finally meet one face to face.

Pancreatic cancer is unusually cruel, even by malignant standards, and Jeff was ravaged. Even his hands looked pitiful, with yellow skin hanging loosely on bony fingers. But his delicate touch was still there as he gently stroked her soft feathers. She looked right at him, into his eyes, and he looked into hers. Then we went outside to his porch.

Jeff lived in a log house in the woods near a riverbank. There were abundant flying insects on this lovely, warm day, and the forecast called for two or three more mild days to come—perfect conditions for setting free a nighthawk who needed to reorient herself toward South America. We set her on the porch railing, and she sat quietly a moment or two, looking at us and then at the big world opened up to her. She looked at us once more, and then took off.

Her wings carried her skyward in a big spiral, and she circled us twice in the blue sky before zigzagging down and alighting on a woodpile. I walked toward her to make sure she was okay, and she waited patiently, allowing me to pet her and say good-by in private before she took off again. She headed back toward Jeff, circled the two of us on light wings, and finally rose and disappeared into the blinding sunlight.

Nighthawks weigh between two and three ounces, with nothing but feathesr and faith to carry them along their 5,000 mile journey. Most nighthawks left the Northland the last week of August. I was sad that she was alone in this dangerous world. But she understood migration instinctively, and flew into the unknown with courage fueled by trust and instinct. We watched the sky for a long time after she disappeared. On my way home, I saw several nighthawks and knew her journey wouldn’t be a lonely one.

Jeff died five days later, on September 15. His drawings had given life to my words, and now it seems an impossible obscenity that his own live could be gone. Come sprig, when nighthawks return on light, delicate wings, I’ll think of Jeff, winging with them on faith and trust, strong and happy once again.