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A Driving Passion

A review by Alexandria Simpson

A Love Affair with Birds: The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts, by Sue Leaf

University of Minnesota Press, 2013

296 pages, $29.95—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14193

How does a love affair start? What drives a passion?

Thomas Sadler Roberts, one of the founders of Minnesota ornithology, believed that naturalists were born with the “heartbeat of nature.” As Sue Leaf richly reveals in her new biography, A Love Affair with Birds, Roberts’s own heart beat in a number of directions: Bird enthusiast,  physician, author, museum curator, educator, and conservationist, Roberts pursued each of these distinct passions with equal enthusiasm over the course of a long, full life.

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 1.00.16 PMRoberts was born in 1858—fittingly enough in Philadelphia, the “cradle of American ornithology.” His father contracted tuberculosis when Thomas was nine, and the family moved west to Minneapolis. In the years that followed, the young man and his father, who believed that “fresh

air” would cure his disease, devoted considerable time to the exploration of Minnesota’s still natural world.

Roberts’s specific interest in birds developed when he was about thirteen. Like nearly everyone else interested in wildlife in the nineteenth century, he was at first a practitioner of shotgun ornithology, but unlike many other collectors and hunters, Roberts killed only what he “needed” for his private collection or the family table, and he took only half the eggs from any nest.
Franklin Benner, an older amateur ornithologist, taught Roberts how to prepare study skins; some of the specimens from his teenage years, meticulously documented, are still in the University of Minnesota’s collection. Roberts also kept a field journal, in which—just like today’s birders—he recorded notable sightings, trip lists, and descriptions of puzzling birds.

In 1875, Roberts and a few nature-loving friends formed the Young Naturalists’  Society. The discussion at the Society’s meetings was not limited to birds, but also covered plants, insects, and fossils; debate also extended to theoretical matters, including the ethics of contemporary natural history. Even in his teens, Roberts understood that the increasing scarcity of game was due to overhunting, as he watched golden-plovers and other once plentiful birds driven into scarcity by careless hunters and collectors:

As a people, we [a]re blind to a wondrous world, a blindness that could imperil us, since humans are dependent on nature. Every species plays a role and cannot be obliterated without a ‘long series of evil’ following in the wake of its destruction.

This strikingly modern-sounding passage is from the speech Roberts delivered as high school valedictorian in 1877, a remarkable and insightful document from the pen of an eighteen-year-old in the “pre-conservation” era. As a side note, Leaf reminds us that the first book encouraging “live” birdwatching would not be published until 1899.

The autumn of 1877 found Roberts enrolled at the University of Minnesota. After graduating, he worked as a land examiner and surveyor, then returned to his native city of Philadelphia to study medicine, a field in which his well-trained memory proved more than useful. Leaf recounts one episode in which one of Roberts’s professors, suspicious that his answers on a written examination so closely recalled the language of the assigned textbook, asked the young student to stand for an oral exam—only to find that Roberts could recite the entire book verbatim!

The following years were filled with such events as residency in a Philadelphia hospital, the return to Minnesota, marriage, children, and the founding of a medical practice—all important stages in Roberts’s life and career, but perhaps of not much interest to the birding reader. In the long tradition of birding physicians, Roberts pursued ornithology on the side in what little spare time his family and his profession afforded.

BINbuttonWith the nostalgia of an early settler, he watched Minneapolis spread into the countryside where he and his father had watched birds; in 1895, he sadly noted the last Passenger Pigeon to be recorded in Minnesota. Roberts called the time spent away from his “real” work as a physician “empty days,” but he was anything but idle. In the late 1890s, he became interested in bird photography, and his illustrated article “The Camera as an Aid in the Study of Birds” was published in the inaugural issue of Bird-Lore, founded in 1899 by his close friend Frank M. Chapman. At
about this time, too, Roberts conceived a plan for a complete and authoritative account of Minnesota birdlife, and he increasingly took to the field again himself or commissioned other ornithologists to study, count, photograph, and collect birds.

In 1915, Roberts, still just 57, closed his medical practice and accepted a formal appointment to the University of Minnesota’s Natural History Survey. In a letter to Chapman, he said it was “not retirement; it’s [a] change of occupation,” a change I’m sure he enjoyed very much. Elected professor of ornithology, Roberts received no salary from the university; instead, his wealthy friends stepped in, creating a fund, $2,500 in the first year, to finance collecting trips. Among Roberts’s responsibilities was a redesign of the university’s natural history museum. He hired a taxidermist and set to work on wildlife dioramas, insisting that each scene accurately portray the animals and the habitats in which they were shown.

At first, Roberts disliked the thought of teaching, but he quickly grew to love his ornithology course, comprising seventeen lectures on such topics as taxonomy, evolution, and anatomy, supplemented by sessions in the field. He taught the class for more than two decades. In the early years, most of his students were women, a reflection perhaps of the demographic shifts caused by the US’s entry into World War I. Even after they left the university to become biology teachers, start bird clubs, or organize small natural history museums, many of Roberts’s students continued to send him their sightings, an important reminder of the need to educate the public, especially the young public, about efforts to save birds and their habitat. Roberts became involved with the Boy Scouts, started a nature camp, and eventually delivered a series of radio lectures about birds and conservation.

A 1924 trip to sites he had birded with his father convinced Roberts of the urgent need for a book about the birds of his adopted state, where so many species were in decline or even extinct. It took seven years to compile and write The Birds of Minnesota, in which Roberts treats everything from geology and habitats to migration, from ornithological history to new research; but most of the book, the work that would make Roberts famous, was dedicated to detailed species accounts and beautiful illustrations. Over the years that followed, he revised and  expanded the book, oversaw the construction of a new university museum, and advocated legal protections for birds of prey. Roberts died on April 19, 1946, but his memory is kept alive in Minnesota: an important stopover for migrants now bears his name, and an award is given in his honor to those who advance ornithological knowledge in the state.

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. My only complaint is that occasionally, in her fascination with her  subject, Leaf allows her story to drag by dwelling too much on details.

Over his lifetime, Thomas Roberts certainly had a love affair with birds. No matter what drove it, it proved to be wonderful for the birds. I can only hope that my own is as long and as profitable.


Alexandria Simpson is an avid seventeen-year-old birder from deep in the heart of Texas. While she wishes she could say she has been birding all her life, she has spent the last six years making up for lost time. Her photography, illustrations, and writing have won awards at local, state, and national levels. 

Recommended citation:

Simpson, A. 2013. A Driving Passion [a review of A Love Affair with Birds: The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts, by Sue Leaf]. Birding 45(5):65.

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