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“A Love Affair With Birds:  The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts,” by Sue Leaf, University of Minnesota Press, 2013

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A review of biography of Thomas Sadler Roberts, father of Minnesota ornithology

  • May 7, 2013 - 1:24 PM

Birds, first, last and always

“A Love Affair With Birds: The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts,” by Sue Leaf, University of Minnesota Press, 2013. $29.95

Thomas Sadler Roberts, gone now for nearly 70 years, left a legacy of appreciation for our state’s natural history and bird life.

If you’ve enjoyed the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History, you can thank Roberts as the driving force behind its creation. He was an early conservationist and has been called the father of Minnesota ornithology, not too grand a claim when you consider his landmark work, “The Birds of Minnesota,” first published in 1932.

Roberts was a medical doctor in the late 1800s and early 1900s who treated Minneapolis’ elite, but birds were always his first love. His happiest moments were spent out in the field, observing and collecting birds (this was in the era when ornithology was practiced with a shotgun). However, too often he felt the pull of his medical practice and family obligations, university commitments and especially the founding of what we now affectionately call “The Bell.” (Roberts’ wealthy friends and patients funded many of its popular displays.)

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.

The nature journals he kept from age 16, full of detailed documentation, formed the basis for his important two-volume book. And the Bell Museum is part of his legacy, with its vibrant dioramas and displays depicting our state’s natural heritage.

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.

Val Cunningham

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