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A Love Affair with Birds

A Love Affair with Birds: The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts

Sue Leaf
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    A Love Affair with Birds
    Book Description:

    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 Birdsis 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 workThe 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8880-7
    Subjects: History, Zoology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xviii)

    Thirty-five years ago, when I was a zoology graduate student, I was quartered on the third floor of the Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota campus. My desk and those of my fellow graduate students were nestled among the cabinets containing the “scientific collection”: study skins of birds and mammals that had accumulated over the years. This was the working museum. Hidden from the public eye, directly over the Touch and See room, our little rabbit warren of office space nurtured would-be biologists amid the fur, feathers, and bones of once-living animals.

    Down the hall from...

  5. CHAPTER 1 A Fledgling Start
    (pp. 1-10)

    TheKey Cityslowly wound its way past the banks of the Mississippi River after a night of torrential rain. The river’s water levels were already high and would rise higher with the night’s deluge. The month of June 1867 had been uncommonly wet.

    It was a fine morning, clear and blue, as if the world had been reborn after the tempestuous lashing. The steamboat’s travelers, having weathered the storm, breakfasted in the dining room. Among those on board enjoying their breakfast was a family of four from Philadelphia: John Roberts, his wife, Elizabeth, and their sons, Thomas and Walter,...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Acquiring an Eagle Eye
    (pp. 11-26)

    Thomas Roberts burst through the doors of Minneapolis High School and into the watery sunshine. The first of April! Spring at last! The sixteen-year-old had been taking note of the early signs of the changing weather for a month, not in anticipation of the baseball season like most boys—he took scant interest in organized sports—but because they heralded the return of migratory birds to Minnesota.

    He surveyed the activity on Third Avenue and saw that his father waited for him, reins in hand, with the family horse and buggy. Though Thomas lived only eight blocks from school, it...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Young Naturalists’ Society
    (pp. 27-40)

    On a Friday evening in March 1875, seven earnest teens gathered in a home on the outskirts of Minneapolis. A bitterly cold winter was losing its grip after months of subzero temperatures, and tufts of prairie grass could be seen protruding from the crusted snow. Most of the boys lived in this neighborhood of two-storied frame houses that lay just west of the business district of First Avenue North, Hennepin Avenue, and Nicollet Avenue. At least two would walk home in the chilly blackness later that night to farms farther out of town.

    The boys had recently formed a club,...

  8. CHAPTER 4 College Boy
    (pp. 41-54)

    A light breeze tossed the nearly opened lilacs as Thomas Roberts stepped outside to greet the day. It was May Day 1878, and a chorus of White-throated Sparrows whistled a clear, melodious song from the trees in the yard. The bubbling chant of a House Wren mingled with the sparrows’ offering. Thomas thought this was the same wren that had nested in a makeshift birdhouse in their yard last year. A few days before, he had watched as the bird checked out the place where the birdhouse, a tin can suspended by a rope, had hung. He had written, “The...

  9. CHAPTER 5 A Gypsy Life
    (pp. 55-67)

    The fall of 1879 was quiet for Thomas Roberts. At twenty-one, he was unfettered by the structure of the school year for the first time. He could freely pursue natural history as he had done in the happy summers of his teens, if his health allowed it.

    While at the university, Thomas had lamented the lack of time to write up bird notes for East Coast publications such asForest and StreamandThe Country, magazines that would gain him national exposure. He now took advantage of his time out of school to complete short articles for publication and pursue...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Medical Student
    (pp. 68-85)

    Three days after Christmas in 1881, Thomas Roberts, slim and fair at age twenty-three, boarded the twelve o’clock train of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad to Philadelphia. Under the solstice sun hanging low in a bright blue sky, a small delegation consisting of his father and brother, Frank Benner, John Cobb, and high school chum Harry Robinson gathered on the platform of the elegant Italianate depot on Washington Avenue to see him off. When the eastbound train stopped in St. Paul, another group, which included Nathan Butler and Harry Neiler, gave him a second send-off.

    John Roberts wrote...

  11. CHAPTER 7 A Family Man
    (pp. 86-99)

    Thomas Roberts studied the creamy, high-quality stationery as he read the letters from his high school friends Joe Kingman and Harry Robinson. The missives had been mailed from Minneapolis on the same day, June 10, 1885. Once more in Philadelphia’s steamy, summer warmth after a visit home, Thomas took in the exuberant, almost chortling joy of his friends. The news of his engagement to dark-haired Jennie Cleveland had made its way through their social set back home rather quickly.

    “My dear Tom,” Joe’s letter began. “The pleasantest duty I have had to perform in a long time [is] to congratulate...

  12. CHAPTER 8 The Busy Physician
    (pp. 100-115)

    Dr. Roberts stepped briskly from his buggy to the massive oak door of his patient’s imposing residence, black bag in hand. He was dressed in a single-breasted, knee-length, dark wool coat over a starched white shirt with a high collar and a checkered tie anchored by a stickpin. A bowler sat atop his head. The mustachioed doctor paused at the front entrance before ringing the bell, checking his gold pocket watch, always mindful of the minutes ticking away and anxious to be on schedule for the start of office hours at two o’clock. The door creaked open, and as the...

  13. CHAPTER 9 The Empty Day
    (pp. 116-132)

    In 1889, Thomas Roberts received a letter from a man in Jackson County, in southwestern Minnesota, whom he had not met. The man, Thomas Miller, was a market hunter, one who made a living shooting large numbers of waterfowl—one hundred ducks, easily, in a single morning—and sending them to the East Coast to hang in butcher shops or grace the linen-clad tables of fancy restaurants. Miller lived on the edge of a vast shallow lake that teemed, he wrote, with birds: white pelicans and Trumpeter Swans, Whooping and Sandhill Cranes, and thousands of ducks. The wetlands were a...

  14. CHAPTER 10 A Florida Interlude
    (pp. 133-139)

    Dr. Roberts leaned on the gunwale of theHildebretand watched with delight as a large flock of Magnificent Frigatebirds dipped and rose over the silvery waters of Barnes Sound at the very tip of Florida. The enormous birds sailed above the mangroves, descended to the water’s surface to pluck out unsuspecting fish, then lofted to ride the gentle breezes brushing the coastal expanse. The day before, he had admired a stunning flock of White Ibis, whose snowy feathers had gleamed under the subtropical sun as they wheeled in formation overhead. He and his companion, Jim Bell, had tried to...

  15. CHAPTER 11 The Associate Curator
    (pp. 140-157)

    Thomas Roberts was ready to tear his hair out. In the August heat of 1915, he stood in a storage room in Pillsbury Hall on the University of Minnesota campus. The air was heavy with dust and humidity, and insect pests fluttered all around, signifying disaster. The Dall sheep skins collected by Jim Bell were infested with bugs feasting on their skin and hair, and someone had left open the box containing them. Winged creatures had escaped and were attacking the bird skins and other mounted specimens in the room. The scourge was everywhere—in every box Roberts had opened,...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Gains and Losses
    (pp. 158-174)

    The April morning in 1926 was chill and dreary as Dr. Roberts passed under the arching stone entrance of the Great Northern Depot situated high above the rushing Mississippi. Spring was advancing in Minneapolis, and the grass had greened. Lake Calhoun was open. Ice-out had been April 17, a little later than usual, and now the waterfowl were coming through in great waves. The Saturday before, he and Will Kilgore had seen three to four hundred ducks on the Minnesota River below Fort Snelling.

    That Saturday no birding trips were planned, so perhaps it was just as well that the...

  17. CHAPTER 13 Writing the Book
    (pp. 175-191)

    Thomas Roberts threaded his way through the household at 2303 Pleasant Avenue South en route to his study, the little room in the big duplex where he could sit and think. The children long gone, the flat itself was a quiet space, but in his study he had a desk, some books (though the bulk of his library was at the museum), and his father’s chair, an antiquated, straight-backed piece brought from Philadelphia so long ago that reminded him of his childhood. The study was warm with the glow of golden light, light suffused with the color of the autumn...

  18. CHAPTER 14 Building Mr. Bell’s Museum
    (pp. 192-210)

    The harried Thomas Roberts riffled through the papers on his desk. It was, as usual, a mess, strewn with journal articles, books, class lists, unanswered mail. He claimed that the disorganization was a holdover habit from his years as a physician, when he never had the luxury of a spare minute in which to straighten a desk, and it appeared that he had not become any less busy in these later years. It might have seemed odd that such an orderly mind was able to abide such a disorderly work space, but it was a habit he retained for his...

  19. CHAPTER 15 The Cardinal Hour
    (pp. 211-227)

    The letter from his old friend Frank Chapman must have stung, rubbing salt into a wound still fresh from the blow that Roberts had been dealt before Christmas. Lee Jaques would not be coming to do any work at the new museum. “I can only hope that … you will find another Jaques in Minnesota and give him the opportunity for development that Jaques has found here,” Chapman had written.¹ Had he meant to be kind? The line could be read as a subtle allusion to lore that long ago, at the start of Jaques’s career, Roberts had passed over...

  20. Epilogue
    (pp. 228-232)

    Thomas Sadler Roberts rests in the Roberts family plot in Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, next to his wife, Jennie. Many in the close-knit family that surrounded him soon followed him to the grave. Agnes Williams Roberts died in July 1946 at Franklin Hospital and was returned to the Williams family plot in New Hope, Pennsylvania, for burial. Son Carroll Roberts passed away less than two years later in February 1948; sister Emma Roberts, at age eighty-nine in December 1948; son Tom, in 1954; and Tom’s sister Catharine, three weeks after. All rest in Lakewood Cemetery.

    In the first decade after Roberts’s...

  21. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 233-256)
  23. Index
    (pp. 257-272)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 273-274)