The man who wrote “The Birds of Minnesota”

Dr. Thomas Sadler Roberts, author of Birds of Minnesota, about 1940.  Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

A vivid memory of growing up on the family farm was an early spring day when migrating snow geese stopped in a nearby field for a lunch break. My father and uncle crept out toward them, guns in hand, to bag a goose or two.

The good news for everyone – the geese, the people who would have had to pluck, cook and eat the critters – is that the birds took flight without any casualties.

That’s roughly how Dr. Thomas Sadler Roberts, above, did his work;  gun and then, later, camera in hand,  he traveled the state observing, collecting and describing birds and then finally writing, ” The Birds of Minnesota.”

The two-volume set, published in 1932, is still considered a definitive account of the state’s wild avian population.

Sue Leaf has written a biography of Roberts, “A Love Affair with Birds,”  and based on her nearly five years of research and interviews describes him as a workaholic.  He kept his Minneapolis medical practice going, which included delivering lots of babies and used any spare time to do his birding.

Leaf, from Center City, talks about Roberts today on All Things Considered.

Roberts quit his medical practice at age 57 so he could devote more time to ornithology, although as Leaf points out, he never described himself as an ornithologist, instead calling himself a retired doctor.

He became the first professor of ornithology (an unpaid position) at the University of Minnesota and helped create what would become the U’s Bell Museum of Natural History and devoted himself to educating aspiring classroom teachers about birds.

Leaf’s book describes how this son of a privileged family from Philadelphia made Minnesota his home and excelled at medicine and ornithology at a time when the state was a magnet for white settlement and commercial development that altered the natural landscape that Roberts treasured.