The Peregrine Vol 19, No 3, May/June 2020
Full-length Article
A Tribute to Bob Leberman

Bob Leberman
Bob Leberman admires a Red-winged Blackbird
(photos by Powdermill Nature Preserve)

In Memoriam: Robert Charles ("Bob") Leberman
(April 3, 1937 - March 10, 2020)
by Robert S. Mulvihill

After a courageous battle with a rare "soft tissue" cancer (leiomyosarcoma) that cost him his left leg and, ultimately, his life, Robert Charles (Bob) Leberman, passed away peacefully at his Powdermill home in the woods, on March 10, 2020. He was almost 83 years old. In his long professional lifetime, Bob was a life-changing mentor to a lucky few (this author included) and a beloved friend and esteemed colleague to countless others.

Born in Meadville on April 3, 1937, Bob was the second child of Charles and Mary (Nodine) Leberman. His surviving brother, Ronald F. Leberman, is a year and a half older. 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. Soon after that initiated a seasonal, migration banding project located within Presque Isle State Park, an effort that 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 relatively new technique of mist-netting, banded some 1,500 birds that summer and fall. By that effort, the world-famous Powdermill bird-banding station was born!

With strong support and professional guidance from the Senior Curator and Assistant Curator of Birds at the Museum, 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." Bob raised the practice of "skulling" birds-in-hand to an art, and in 1970, he published a seminal paper on the subject. 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 pioneered studies of "differential migration," the temporally separated passage of immature and adult birds of a species within migration seasons, and he published important papers about the phenomenon.

Bob was among the first banders to consistently collect scientific data on the body condition of birds caught for banding, including measures of visible fat deposits and body mass. In fact, Bob's body mass data from Powdermill were so valuable for ecological and other studies being done by other field ornithologists at the time, he and Mary Clench summarized them in 1978 in a detailed research monograph of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Decades later, in 2004, with hundreds of thousands more data available, I, along with Bob, and honorary "third Bob," Adrienne Leppold, re-analyzed Powdermill's body mass, fat, and wing length data and published the first-ever research monograph of the Eastern Bird Banding Association.

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 has contributed many dozens of scientific and popular articles about birds based on these data. However, Bob's contributions to field of ornithology extend 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 in Bob's easy and good-natured way. For example, on any given spring day near the peak migration time for colorful spring wood warblers, Bob might invite into the banding lab a group of neighbor children and a Lord and Lady visiting from London, England!

As crucially important as Bob's contributions to bird banding and ornithology were and are, it was his energy and commitment to everyday birding that endeared him to the local birding community. When he was still living in Meadville, and even after he became established at Powdermill, Bob was a very active member of the Meadville Bird and Tree Club. In 1958 (the year this younger Bob was born!) he became the Editor-in-Chief of The Sandpiper, a joint quarterly publication of the Meadville Bird and Tree Club, the Presque Isle Nature Club, and the Sam Wharram Nature Club. Published by mimeograph, the stapled journal went to members of those clubs and other interested people. In addition to editing the journal, Bob served as one of the regional editors for its bird record summaries, a regular feature contributor, and a frequent illustrator, too. In fact, Bob's artistic hand created a great many of The Sandpiper's wonderful cover illustrations, which were always of a shorebird species.

Once he was at Powdermill, Bob became a regular contributor to the monthly bird summaries in the Bulletin of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, and to the seasonal summaries compiled four times a year in a national bird journal then known as American Birds. For many years, he supplied details on significant Powdermill banding records, along with important Ligonier Valley area field observations, to Appalachian Region editor, Dr. George Hall; later, Bob took over as regional editor from George. Bob also was important 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. Bob also served as a county compiler for Pennsylvania Birds for many years. Among more than a hundred publications written by Bob in his career, two were of particular use and interest to birders: Birds of the Ligonier Valley published in 1976; and, in 1988, he published a revised Birds of the Pittsburgh Region, an updating of Ken Parkes's classic 1956 work.

Bob was one of the organizers for the first breeding bird atlas in Pennsylvania, served as a regional coordinator for the seven-year project, was on the verification and publication committees, and authored more than 20 species accounts for the book. Bob also contributed block coverage and species accounts for the second breeding bird atlas in 2004-2010. Bob was semi-retired (after 43 years!) from the Powdermill bird banding program during those second atlas years; nevertheless, he continued to spend time in the banding lab whenever he wasn't doing field work for the atlas.

In addition to Bob's very significant contributions to ornithology, in general, and Pennsylvania birding, in particular, it might not be widely known that Bob also had significant expertise with regard to the birds of Belize. He participated in expeditions and banding projects in Belize in the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in an avian distribution paper in the Annals of Carnegie Museum and the publication of a new Checklist of the Birds of Belize, co-authored with D. Scott Wood and Dora Weyer.

In his career, Bob never focused for very long 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 be 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. His career at Powdermill overlapped with the career of another self-taught ornithologist, Curator Emeritus of the Section of Birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 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 after 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 was documenting through the bird banding, such as summering Prairie Warblers. Bob told me that upon hearing about that, Mr. Todd was very skeptical, because he himself had not found the species breeding during his extensive fieldwork for Birds of Western Pennsylvania. He was finally convinced after seeing Bob's 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 (myself included) 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 wild orchids and ferns, and he grew cultivated orchids at home. He knew the butterflies very well, too. He had excellent collections of antique duck decoys, flow blue china, natural history art, and stamps and postal covers. Bob's philatelic collection (especially from the former British Honduras, now Belize) and knowledge of postal history (especially of northwestern PA during the early oil boom) was very extensive; Bob even co-authored a paper about pre-stamp cancellations in a national journal of postal history.

Robert C. Leberman - a true gentleman and bona fide Renaissance man - made an indelible mark on Pennsylvania birding and a positive impression on every Pennsylvania birder lucky enough to have known him.

Bob receives the James Henry Fleming Award
recognizing his contributions to the field of ornithology, July 14, 2019.

Please read a related item in PDF form titled A Birding Interview with the Bobs,
from the July/August 2013 edition of Birding magazine.

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Mission of 3RBC

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© Photo Credits:
Sherron Lynch, Brian Shema, Chuck Tague