Walter J. Breckenridge was a towering influence in natural history in Minnesota. He was known across the country as an ecologist, ornithologist and artist. He started collecting and practicing taxidermy as a teenager and was an attentive observer all his life.

Breck, as he was known, began his career preparing specimens for several of the dioramas at the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum of Natural History, which has just published his autobiography. He eventually served as director there for 24 years.

His book contains 44 pages of color plates of his watercolor and oil paintings. His sketches and drawings also serve as chapter heads and illustrations.

He tells of a hair-raising honeymoon trip to Churchill, Manitoba, sleeping in tents through a storm that tossed a canoe onto a house. His mission -- besides the honeymoon, that is -- was to capture rabbits and grouse to collect ticks.

His early studies of the great-horned owl were dramatic. Once, bending over to lift a fallen chick to its nest, he felt as if he'd been hit in the back by a boxing glove full of needles. It seems that mama owl didn't want anyone touching her baby. The owlet was returned to its nest, but Breckenridge had to keep putting it back when its siblings pushed it out.

Breckenridge and his wife, Dorothy, made their home on about 3 acres along the Mississippi River just north of the Twin Cities, facing a 20-acre island in the river, which had all kinds of wildlife visitors through the years. Breckenridge studied, wrote about and painted many of them.