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A Love Affair with Birds

The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts

2013
Author:

Sue Leaf

A Love Affair with Birds

The father of Minnesota ornithology, whose life story opens a window on a lost world of nature and conservation in the state’s early days

A Love Affair with Birds is the first full biography of Thomas Sadler Roberts. Bird enthusiast, doctor, author, curator, educator, conservationist: every chapter in Roberts’s life is also a chapter in the state’s history, and in his story acclaimed author Sue Leaf—an avid bird enthusiast and nature lover herself—captures a true Minnesota character and his time.

For those of us who spend a lifetime helping preserve and encourage the conservation of birdlife, one of the greatest gifts we can receive is the chance to enter the ‘conservation time machine’ provided by books like Sue Leaf’s A Love Affair with Birds. It transports us back more than a hundred years to experience the diversity and abundance of the birdlife that once existed in Minnesota. It allows us to sense Roberts’s passion for birds, his detailed powers of observation, and his thoroughness in documenting his lifetime of bird observations.

Carrol Henderson, Nongame Wildlife Program supervisor, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Imagine a Minneapolis so small that, on calm days, the roar of St. Anthony Falls could be heard in town, a time when passenger pigeons roosted in neighborhood oak trees. Now picture a dapper professor conducting his ornithology class (the university’s first) by streetcar to Lake Harriet for a morning of bird-watching. The students were mostly young women—in sunhats, sailor tops, and long skirts, with binoculars strung around their necks. The professor was Thomas Sadler Roberts (1858–1946), a doctor for three decades, a bird lover virtually from birth, the father of Minnesota ornithology, and the man who, perhaps more than any other, promoted the study of the state’s natural history. A Love Affair with Birds is the first full biography of this key figure in Minnesota’s past.

Roberts came to Minnesota as a boy and began keeping detailed accounts of Minneapolis’s birds. These journals, which became the basis for his landmark work The Birds of Minnesota, also inform this book, affording a view of the state’s rich avian life in its early days—and of a young man whose passion for birds and practice of medicine among Minneapolis’s elite eventually dovetailed in his launching of the beloved Bell Museum of Natural History.

Bird enthusiast, doctor, author, curator, educator, conservationist: every chapter in Roberts’s life is also a chapter in the state’s history, and in his story acclaimed author Sue Leaf—an avid bird enthusiast and nature lover herself—captures a true Minnesota character and his time.

A Love Affair with Birds

Sue Leaf is the author of Potato City: Nature, History, and Community in the Age of Sprawl and The Bullhead Queen: A Year on Pioneer Lake (Minnesota, 2009), a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards. Trained as a zoologist, she now writes on environmental topics. She is president of the Wild River Audubon Society of east-central Minnesota.

A Love Affair with Birds

For those of us who spend a lifetime helping preserve and encourage the conservation of birdlife, one of the greatest gifts we can receive is the chance to enter the ‘conservation time machine’ provided by books like Sue Leaf’s A Love Affair with Birds. It transports us back more than a hundred years to experience the diversity and abundance of the birdlife that once existed in Minnesota. It allows us to sense Roberts’s passion for birds, his detailed powers of observation, and his thoroughness in documenting his lifetime of bird observations.

Carrol Henderson, Nongame Wildlife Program supervisor, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Sue Leaf's engaging and carefully researched portrait of Thomas Sadler Roberts captures not just the man, but also the place and time in which his passions—medicine and ornithology—were born. Arriving in Minneapolis as a child when the city was young, Roberts over the course of a long, industrious life claimed an important place in Minnesota history that lives on in the book he wrote, The Birds of Minnesota, and the institution he founded, the Bell Museum of Natural History. Leaf tells Roberts's story with grace and empathy. A lively, important biography.

William Souder, author of Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America

A Love Affair With Birds, published by the University of Minnesota Press, traces the life of the Minneapolis physician who led birding expeditions, kept meticulous and now invaluable birding journals, and helped found the Bell Museum of Natural History.

Star Tribune

Minnesota’s importance to birds and birders cannot be overstated. More than 400 species have been recorded there. It’s a migratory pathway. And it’s the home of not just great hotspots but great advocates, like Carrol Henderson and our own Laura Erickson. That’s why this book is so relevant.

BirdWatching

In biographer Sue Leaf’s capable hands, we are drawn into Roberts’ long and worthy life, beginning with his family’s arrival in St. Paul in 1867. As a boy he was free to explore this edge-of-the-prairie region and its wildlife, and Leaf, herself a bird watcher, paints a vivid picture of what the area was like a century ago. Anyone with an interest in birds, Minnesota’s natural history and learning about the life of a singular doctor, author, curator, educator, conservationist and bird enthusiast will find this book a rare treat.

Star Tribune

Leaf’s recounting of this long life is a great read, especially for those of us who love history and the history of ornithology; the author’s tendency to wax poetic recalls the literary style of many of Roberts’s contemporaries.

Birding Book Reviews

A Love Affair with Birds

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction
1. A Fledgling Start
2. Acquiring an Eagle Eye
3. The Young Naturalists’ Society
4. College Boy
5. A Gypsy Life
6. The Medical Student
7. A Family Man
8. The Busy Physician
9. The Empty Day
10. A Florida Interlude
11. The Associate Curator
12. Gains and Losses
13. Writing the Book
14. Building Mr. Bell’s Museum
15. The Cardinal Hour

Epilogue

Notes
Index