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Robert (Bob) Leberman 1937-2020

Fern Davies

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In Memorium:  Robert Charles Leberman (April 3, 1937 – March 10, 2020)

by Robert S. Mulvihill

Robert (Bob) Leberman passed away peacefully at his home at Powdermill Nature Reserve on March 10, 2020, after a courageous six-year-long battle with a rare “soft tissue” cancer, called leiomyosarcoma, which necessitated an above-the-knee amputation of his left leg.  He was just a few weeks shy of 83 years old when he died. 

Born in Meadville on April 3, 1937, Bob was the second child of Charles and Mary (Nodine) Leberman.  His surviving older brother is Ronald F. Leberman.  The Lebermans were a nature-loving family, and Bob grew up exploring nature in the rich hemlock woods, glacial lakes, swamps, and bogs all around his boyhood home.  In 1958, Bob obtained a federal bird-banding permit, and soon after that he initiated a seasonal, migration banding project at Presque Isle State Park—that migration monitoring continues to this day under the auspices of the Erie Bird Observatory. 

Bob’s mother and brother participated with him in the banding at Presque Isle, and they continued the banding there for many years following Bob’s own migration, in June 1961, to the newly created Powdermill Nature Reserve of Carnegie Museum.  At the invitation of then-director, Dr. M. Graham Netting, Bob went to Powdermill and, using the still relatively new technique of mist-netting, banded some 1,500 birds that summer and fall—with that effort, the world-famous Powdermill bird-banding station was born!

With strong support and professional guidance from the late Senior Curator and Assistant Curator of Birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Dr. Kenneth C. Parkes and Dr. Mary Heimerdinger Clench, respectively, Bob quickly established Powdermill as one of the premiere bird-banding research stations in North America.  As Bob put it in an interview in Birding magazine (July/August 2013), “With their [Ken’s and Mary’s] enthusiastic mentoring, they turned a young, green birder into a working museum/field ornithologist.” 

Early on, Bob raised the practice of “skulling” birds to an art, and in 1970, he published a seminal paper on the subject, focusing on Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  Because Bob was among the most skilled at accurately determining the ages of birds-in-hand, in those early years he conducted many formal and informal workshops to help train other banders in his techniques.  Bob also pioneered studies of “differential migration,” the temporally separated passage of immature and adult birds of a species within migration seasons. 

Bob was among the first bird banders to consistently collect wing, fat, and body mass data for every bird he banded at Powdermill.  In fact, Powdermill’s voluminous body mass data were so often requested for ecological and other studies, in 1978 he and Mary Clench summarized them in a detailed research Bulletin of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  Decades later, with hundreds of thousands more data available, Bob co-authored a second compendium of body mass, fat, and wing length data for 170 species, which was published as the first-ever research monograph of the Eastern Bird Banding Association in 2004. 

The Powdermill banding database now contains well over a half-million records—a true treasure trove of data for decades to come!  Alone and with others, Bob contributed many dozens of scientific and popular articles about birds based on these data.  However, Bob's contributions to field of ornithology extended far beyond the invaluable data he helped collect and the studies he completed.  In the course of his career, tens of thousands of visitors of all ages and all walks of life were welcomed and educated about birds in Bob's easy and good-natured way.  For example, Bob might host a group of neighbor children at the banding lab one day, and a visiting Lord and Lady from London, England or a grandson of Theodore Roosevelt the next!

Bob was an avid field birder, too.  For many decades he regularly compiled notable banding records and field observations of birds seen at Powdermill and the surrounding area for monthly bird summaries of the Bulletin of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, and for seasonal summaries in American Birds, for the “Appalachian Region” editor, Dr. George Hall.  Later, Bob replaced George as Appalachian regional editor.  Bob served for many years as a member of the Pennsylvania’s Ornithological Records Committee, reviewing hundreds of observations submitted for formal recognition in the official record of the state’s birds.  He also served as a county compiler for Pennsylvania Birds for many years. 

Bob was an organizer of the first breeding bird atlas in Pennsylvania.  He served as a regional coordinator, was on the verification and publication committees, and authored more than twenty species accounts for the resulting book.  He also contributed extensive block coverage and several species accounts for the second Pennsylvania breeding bird atlas in 2004-2010.  Among more than a hundred publications written by Bob in his career, two were of particular interest to birders:  Birds of the Ligonier Valley published in 1976; and, in 1988, his revised Birds of the Pittsburgh Region, an extensive updating of Ken Parkes’s classic 1956 work.  Bob had been working on a complete revision of his Birds of the Ligonier Valley book before he died.  

In addition to Bob’s very significant contributions to field ornithology, in general, and Pennsylvania birding, in particular, Bob was an expert on the birds of Belize.  He participated in expeditions and banding projects in Belize in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and co-authored avian distribution papers in the Annals of Carnegie Museum, as well as a new Checklist of the Birds of Belize.

In his long career, Bob never focused strongly on any one particular bird species; nevertheless, he had a special fondness for Kentucky Warblers, the nesting ecology of which he studied in his spare time in the early years at Powdermill.  Although he never published them, his expert observations of the Kentucky Warbler found their way into his friend, Hal Harrison’s popular work, Wood Warblers World.

Bob Leberman may well have been the last of an era of largely self-taught ornithologists.  In high school he focused more on classes related to business and art than the natural sciences, and his college experience was limited to assisting a professor at Allegheny College in teaching the field component of his ornithology class. Bob’s career at Powdermill overlapped with the career of another eminent, self-taught ornithologist, Curator Emeritus, W. E. Clyde Todd.  Bob had largely committed to memory Todd’s classic, Birds of Western Pennsylvania, and he admired the work so much that he proudly named his house at Powdermill “Todd Manor” in honor of Mr. Todd.  In the seven years between Bob’s arrival at Powdermill and Mr. Todd’s death in 1968, Mr. Todd became aware of some of the remarkable bird records that Bob had begun documenting through his bird banding, such as summering Prairie Warblers.  Bob recalled that upon hearing of this, Mr. Todd was very skeptical as he himself had not found the species breeding during his extensive, decades-long  fieldwork for his Birds of Western Pennsylvania, and was not convinced until seeing confirmatory photographs of the bird in hand.

For generations to come, Bob Leberman will continue to shape our understanding of birds thanks to the dedicated works of all the students and young professionals whom he inspired and mentored in his characteristically genial and humble way.  Bob did not only feed our hunger for knowledge and satisfy our craving for experience; he literally fed us, too.  I would not even hazard a guess as to how many volunteers, visitors, and interns Bob nourished from his own kitchen and cupboards!  Today, a great many of Bob’s well-fed “kids” have gone on to important careers in academia, conservation, wildlife management, and education. 

Some may be surprised to learn that birds were not Bob’s only interest nor his only area of expertise—not by a long shot.  As alluded to above, Bob was a very good cook—in truth, something of a gourmet!  He was an excellent amateur botanist and helped inventory the flora of Powdermill twice, under two different curators of botany!  He was particularly adept at spotting and identifying cryptic wild orchids, and he grew cultivated orchids at home.  He knew the butterflies very well, too, and contributed many field records to Carnegie’s lepidopterist, Dr. Harry Clench. 

Bob had excellent personal collections of antique duck decoys, flow blue china, natural history art, and, especially postage stamps and postal covers.  Bob’s philatelic collection (especially from the former British Honduras, now Belize) and his knowledge of postal history (especially of northwestern PA during the early oil boom) was very extensive; Bob even co-authored a paper about postal cancellations in a national journal of postal history.  Robert C. Leberman—a true gentleman and bona fide Renaissance man—made an indelible mark on  bird banding and field ornithology and was an unfailingly positive influence on every one of us lucky enough to be mentored by him, whether for a day or a half a lifetime!  image.png


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