‘A Love Affair With Birds’ chronicles the life of Thomas Sadler Roberts

A visit to the local natural-history museum used to be a rite of passage for elementary-school students. (Holden Caulfield sought his lost childhood there in “Catcher in the Rye,” remember?) But rocks, taxidermy, and subdued lighting don’t fire up generations raised on technology, and in recent decades, a lot of those field trips have been redirected to big, flashy science museums.

And that’s a shame. The Bell Museum of Natural History is a not-quite-forgotten treasure that the luckier school kids still visit. Established in 1872, the Bell’s amazing scientific collections (and yes, hip modern exhibits) document Minnesota’s lost wild places and beings. Thomas Sadler Roberts, an influential Minneapolis physician and naturalist, helped launch the Bell, and his research, collections and intentions helped preserve the memory of Minnesota landscapes dating back to the early years of settlement, when conservation was barely a thought. Today, the man himself has nearly been forgotten.

“I’ve asked myself why that is,” said Sue Leaf, the author of “A Love Affair With Birds: The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts” (University of Minnesota Press). “He was so important, so charismatic and well known. But he died right after World War II, and that really was the end of one thing and the beginning of something else in this country. When he was gone, the old world was gone, and things changed.”

Leaf, an avid birder and author, first encountered Roberts through his groundbreaking bird guide, “The Birds of Minnesota.” The book is dated, she notes, as many of the birds he recorded no longer exist in Minnesota, or do in greatly changed numbers, but “there’s a tremendous amount of info, migration dates, nesting dates, number of eggs — it’s amazing. And he’s a really good writer. He’s a charming writer. He clearly felt kindly towards these birds.”

A unique and driven man

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Sue Leaf

As Leaf found, when she dipped into the tremendous archives Roberts left behind, the man was as interesting as his work. “A Love Affair With Birds” chronicles a fascinating character in Minnesota history, from his sometimes outrageous efforts to document every bird in the state to his important role in building Minnesota’s reputation as a medical center to his evolution from hunter to conservationist. Leaf’s biography conveys a unique and driven man who happened to have had a front seat as the Twin Cities changed from frontier towns into busy, sophisticated cities.

“I would tell people, as I was writing, ‘I think I’m kind of in love with this guy.’ There was so much I connected with him on, so many levels,” she said. “Writing a biography is such an intimate thing. You find out things about someone that even their descendants don’t know. You find out about the person and how they fit into their time.”

Roberts’ time, which spanned nearly eight decades of Minnesota history, is brought richly to life in these pages as Leaf follows him on bird-watching expeditions into the wilds of Uptown Minneapolis and beyond. She wonderfully describes a beautiful, lost world in which the St. Anthony Falls ran clean and free; whippoorwills called from the gracious oak and prairie savannah of today’s Uptown Minneapolis; and a diverse profusion of birds nested in the fertile marshes that now lie under the lawns of the Walker Art Center. Roberts watched great flocks of passenger pigeons darkening the sky, until they did not.

Saddened by what was lost

“When he was a middle-aged man, he accepted this as the price you pay for progress, but later, as he took the long view and saw what had really been lost, it really saddened him,” said Leaf.

Roberts’ research has aided generations of biology students (including Leaf, who as a student worked with Walter Breckenridge, a Roberts protégé, in the late 1970s) and helped establish statewide conservation biology efforts.

“We are attempting to restore what has been damaged or lost, and that would not be possible without fully understanding what we once had. Thanks to Roberts, we have that. And I think he would be pleased at some of the progress that has been made. The bald eagle has made a comeback, there are trumpeter swans in Minnesota again, and the sandhill cranes, which he had so much difficulty locating for the Bell’s diorama, are here again. He’d be amazed.”

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