You’ve maybe been there: sorting through lifetimes of belongings to ready your parents’ home—the house you grew up in—for sale. No matter how close you were to your parents, no matter how often you spoke, when they are gone, questions arise for which there is now no-one left to ask. There are also unexpected treasures.
This one came in the form of a small green spiral notebook, found in a box from the attic among papers from my father’s time as a student at the University of Minnesota. It was spring of 1941, in those last months before Pearl Harbor and America’s full-on engagement in World War 2. He would have been 20 years old. Printed on the notebook cover in my father’s neat hand was: Hubert R. Allmann, Jordan, Minnesota, Ornithology Field Trips. Attached with a paper clip to the inside cover was a black & white class photograph taken in front of the Minnesota Museum of Natural History. I find my father in the second row. He is mostly blocked by the young man in front of him, but you can see his shoulders, his eyes, his shock of dark hair.
The journal chronicles twice-weekly class field trips taken from mid-April through May. Each entry offers notes on the day’s weather, a 1- to 2-page narrative account of locations visited, and a list of bird species that were seen that day.
On the first day, April 14, at Lake Nokomis, he writes, “Saw a few ring-billed gulls and several loons. Driving along Cedar, we saw a hen pheasant, a killdeer, a meadowlark and a horned lark.” At the Izaak Walton Bass Ponds, he notes that the Dutchman’s Britches, Bloodroot, and Hepatica were in bloom, and a migrant shrike that was spotted along the road out to the highway. Near Lake Harriet a few days later, he writes: “Along the bridle path we saw a barred owl who gave us every opportunity to observe him by sitting very quietly in a treetop.” He interjects his impressions of what he sees: On April 23, back at Lake Harriet, are “a beautiful Myrtle Warbler” and a “very nondescript little Orange-crowned Warbler.” When they stopped at a little pond on the way back to campus on April 28, the students saw two Wilson’s snipe. He writes, “We had a beautiful view of the snipe probing in the soft, damp earth.”
Things were not all rosy. In the last entry for April, he notes plum blossoms in bloom—“quite early for them”—but also the oppressive, 80° heat. He writes: “Dr. Roberts and Mr. Kilgore said that this was one of the poorest bird days they had ever seen.”
Dr. Roberts? I realize with a start that his professor had been Thomas Roberts. I look again at the photo, and there he is, in the front row, with his trademark round spectacles, suit and tie. My father had the remarkable good fortune to participate in a class led by one of the most notable ornithologists of the era and a leading conservationist. A medical doctor by profession, Thomas Sadler Roberts was an avid birder and had been a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union since its first meeting in 1883. As Sue Leaf relates in her biography of Roberts, “A Love Affair with Birds,” in 1915, (although still a practicing physician) he accepted a new role offered to him by the University of Minnesota Regents, that of professor of ornithology and associate curator of a small Zoological Museum. A year later, in 1916, he taught his first ornithology class to students, with winter classroom sessions followed by regular spring outings in metro-area parks and other pockets of habitat known to be hot spots for birds.
Roberts is perhaps best remembered for his masterful two-volume “Birds of Minnesota,” which had its first printing in 1932 and still holds an honored place on the shelves of birders. Others will recall his long directorship of the Minnesota Museum of Natural History. With support from friend and benefactor James Bell, Roberts was able to first improve and then, in 1940, relocate the University’s small zoology museum to a beautiful new limestone building on Church Street. There, he was able to enact his vision for the museum, which included many of the outstanding Jacques dioramas for which the museum—later renamed the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History—became known. A great believer in education, he also advocated for the role of trained interpreters to convey an understanding of science both through the museum exhibits and outdoors, in natural settings. At times, his outspoken advocacy for birds and wildlife put him at odds with sportsmen’s groups as well as lawmakers.
Roberts taught the ornithology class for almost three decades, through 1945, right up to the year before his death at age 88. But he stopped leading the field outings after 1942, so my father’s class was one of his last. Thanks to librarians at the University of Minnesota archives, I learn the identity of another figure in the class photo: Walter Breckenridge, who (along with Will Kilgore) assisted with Roberts’ classes in later years. Both men were friends and colleagues of Roberts, top birders, and instrumental in the development of the museum. Breckenridge, or “Breck,” served as museum director from 1946 to 1979. He, too, made an outstanding contribution in advocating for the state’s wildlife and its habitat, and was described as a “conservation giant” when he passed away in 2003 at the age of 100.
All this to say, Dad clearly did pretty well when it came to ornithology instructors. According to the archives, he also did pretty well in the class, earning an “A.” A penciled note on the front page of his notebook, presumably written by Roberts, reads: “A good, well-arranged journal, giving the details that serve to refresh the memory when consulted sometime in the future.”
Today, it doesn’t so much refresh a memory as create one: the image of my father as a young man, the experience of seeing the natural world through his eyes, made stronger by the fact that we are now approaching the season he writes about in his journal.
It also raises the question: how different are the bird species seen in these same places now? Could observations made eighty years ago offer any insights? I ask Lee Pfannmuller, co-author of the online Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (Featured in Agate in a 2018 story). Although hard at work on a new book on Minnesota’s breeding birds, she was excited to see the 1941 journal. In true Pfannmuller fashion she responded roughly a week after receiving a scanned copy of the journal with an Excel spreadsheet she had created and 7 pages of comments, including but not limited to species name changes, overall phenology, diversity of species observed, notable species missing from the journal list, and notable species more common today. She also offered a deeper dive into sightings at Lake Harriet, where a wildlife preserve was later dedicated to T.S. Roberts, and which has had a more-or-less continuous record of observations kept by birders over the years. Her comments offer wonderful context to the journal, which my father would have really enjoyed. There were a number of things, Pfannmuller said, that especially stood out.
On a cultural note, the photo: while the 1941 class was all male, she recalled reading in Leaf’s biography that Roberts’ ornithology classes at the U of M were often dominated by female students. This was in contrast to the early Minneapolis Bird Club, which was comprised only of men.
Of the journal’s birds, she writes: “First, the complete absence of Canada Geese! Despite their ubiquitous presence in the Twin Cities and surrounding regions today, their complete absence from the journal is noticeable.” She refers to Roberts’ own description of the species in 1932: ‘The destruction of their nesting grounds as the state became settled and the systematic slaughter to which they were subjected by hunters later on has resulted in their numbers being so greatly reduced that a migrating flock of geese is now an event of special interest over much of the state.’ At the time of his writing, Pfannmuller notes, “1929 was the last documented nesting until aggressive efforts began to restore the species, not only in Minnesota but throughout the Great Plains and the Midwest in the 1950s.”
Also notable on the “not seen” list was the Bald Eagle. “Now, the Bald Eagle is a regular and widely distributed species throughout Minnesota, including throughout the Twin Cities. It is hard to imagine taking as many trips as your father did in the spring of 1941 and not seeing a single one. In the early 1900s, Roberts wrote that the bird was restricted to the ‘remote and protected region’ of the state.”
The observance of Northern Cardinals on only three dates (4-14, 5-12, and 5-14), she remarks, is indicative of the fact that they were then still relatively uncommon, and present in the Twin Cities only in small numbers. “This southern species is one of many benefitting from warmer winters, continuing to spread farther north in the state. Today, this species is found as a year-round resident across the metro area.”
A flock of approximately 50 Blue and Lesser Snow Geese observed on April 21 at the Cedar Avenue bridge over the Minnesota River was described by my father in his journal as “one of the most outstanding events of the field trips.” Says Pfannmuller, “These birds made quite an impression on your dad. They are no longer considered separate species but different color morphs of one and the same species, the Snow Goose.” She notes that Roberts wrote in“Birds of Minnesota” in 1932 that “the main migration route has always been rather westwardly, over the prairie country. A smaller flight, however, followed a more easterly course and passes over the forest region. …(and) it is only occasionally that flocks of Snow or Blue Geese are now seen in the eastern part of the state.” Their uncommon to occasional status in the Twin Cities region during the spring migration remains true today as well, she notes, citing Janssen, 2019. “So it was truly a special sighting by your father’s class in 1941.”
Given her knowledge of the current status of the state’s bird populations, together with her familiarity with many of these same sites, Pfannmuller was able to approach the journal from many angles, comparing and contrasting. Of course, frequency of sightings over the weeks offers only a hint at abundance, but the diversity of species seen in some places was lower than she expected. She notes that there could have been many variables influencing what the students saw or did not see, such as storms delaying migration in the south and along the Gulf coast, and the weather on the day of the field trips. It would also have reflected the time in the state’s history: she shares a comment made by a fellow birder, Manley Olson, that “in the early 40s, many populations of birds (especially waterfowl and upland game birds) were still on the rebound following years of intensive, unregulated harvest.”
Considering the times we’re all living through now, I confess that it’s a comfort to read even the most ordinary scenes related in the journal. With so many things off-kilter, it’s reassuring to think that spring still manages to come around. I also like seeing what my father felt worthy of note: what he found interesting or beautiful. It’s a little like joining him as he walks: though he is frozen in time as a young person of 20 and I am…well, not.
On May 5, at Rush Lake, he writes of strawberries, anemones and white violets in bloom, of a garter snake, and a nest of song sparrows with five eggs that “One of the fellows very nearly stepped on.” May 7 at Coon Creek brought “an American bittern walking up a hillside,” a black-banded skink, and “a good many interesting plants,” including trillium, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and wild ginger. The highlight of May 12, he notes, was a pheasant’s nest with 17 eggs, the bird “beautifully camouflaged” 30 feet from the path. May 19 at Glenwood Park brought “the first indigo bunting of the year,” while an area of sand dunes and scrub oak at Laddie Lake on May 21 brought sight of “an upland plover flying over in its characteristic way.”
That phrase, “in its characteristic way” goes to the heart of why teachers like Thomas Roberts who share their enthusiasms are so important. How better to learn than to be immersed in the outdoors, to be introduced by such a teacher to species and “their characteristic ways,” to see for oneself that species are not randomly distributed across the landscape but thrive in habitats that meet their needs? Such experiences may open the door to a conservation ethic, to a certain regard and even compassion for living things. They also offer the incomparable gift of a lifetime of enjoyment to be found in the appreciation of wild creatures and wild places.
It’s the kind of thing that just might rub off on your children.
With thanks to Lee Pfannmuller for her contributions to this story, and to my brother Phil, who braved the attic.