In 23 January 2023 Dr. Robert (Bob) W. Nero passed away after a long and productive life as scientist, ornithologist, naturalist, owl bander and poet. His contributions to the ornithological literature and all facets of nature, especially of the Prairie Provinces, are too many to list.
Bob was born near Madison, Wisconsin on 26 December 1922. During World War II he served with the U.S. military in the South Pacific, after which he commenced doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, graduating in 1953 with a PhD in ornithology. His thesis was on Red-winged Blackbirds, which he had studied in marshes near the university. This eventually led to the publication of the book Redwings in 1984. After completion of his studies he and his family – wife Ruth and children – moved in 1955 to Regina, where he took up the positions of assistant director of the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History (now Royal Saskatchewan Museum) and associate professor of biology at the University of Saskatchewan. During his years in Saskatchewan he gathered data for Birds of the Lake Athabasca Region, Saskatchewan (1963) and The Birds of Northeastern Saskatchewan (1967). He also served as president of the Saskatchewan Natural History Society (Nature Saskatchewan) and as editor of Blue Jay, for which he submitted numerous items over the years.
In the mid-60s the family moved again, now to Winnipeg, where Bob became Chief of Natural History at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature (Manitoba Museum). Here he met renowned wildlife photographer Robert Taylor, who introduced him - as it were - to the Great Gray Owl. This species became the focus of much of Bob’s free time from 1968 on. He and colleague Herbert (Herb) Copland set out to capture and band Great Grays, in order to learn more about this iconic species’ habits and movements. Much of this activity took place during the winter along country roads in southeastern Manitoba. Bob used a fishing reel with a fake mouse at the end of the line, which was cast out in the direction of an owl and then reeled in. Herb would capture the owl with a large net when it flew in close enough. Then the bird would be measured, weighed, sexed, aged and banded, to be released shortly after. Passers-by would be baffled by the sight and Bob’s son Birch wrote that at a diner his dad overheard some locals bemused by the sight of some crazy fellows fishing in a ditch in winter! Dad then proceeded to stop at a store where he bought a couple of fish which he hung from his waist as he and Herb continued to “fish” for owls. Whether this is true, or Bob made it up, it is a good story and shows Bob’s mischievous spirit and sense of humour. Many Manitoba birders who met Bob and Herb on one of their banding expeditions were treated to seeing the pair in action, providing a memory that would last a lifetime.
Photo of Bob and Herb catching owls supplied by Dennis Fast.
Photo of Bob with Great Gray Owl supplied by Dennis Fast.
In 1970 Bob took up the position of Wildlife Specialist with the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources, where he remained until retirement in 1991. During his years there he found much support for his work with owls from his superiors and colleagues. In 1984 Bob learned of a Great Gray Owl nest with three chicks, the smallest of which was starving. Eventually this runt was rescued and rehabilitated by Renate Scriven. Bob later took the care of this bird over himself, after a large aviary was built in his backyard. The owl became know as Lady Grayl, a name derived from a comment Robert Taylor made when he showed Bob his first Great Gray – the Holy Grail. This owl became a celebrity as Bob took it to schools, community clubs, shopping malls, trade shows and other venues, exposing many Manitobans to a bird they had never heard of, let alone seen. The Great Gray Owl was also adopted as Manitoba’s official bird in 1987, to a great extent through Bob’s promoting it, with the support of the province’s birding community and his colleagues. It became a heated topic, with strongly divided camps, until the choice was finally made. It was an apt choice, as Manitoba hosts more Great Gray Owls than just about anywhere else in the world. In the same year - 1987 - the first Northern Forest Owl Symposium was held in Winnipeg, with participants from 12 countries, followed by a second symposium in 1997. The latter symposium’s field trip attracted 120 participants, who traveled the backroads in three buses, which presented a logistical nightmare, but all left satisfied after seeing numerous Great Grays, Hawk-Owls and a few Snowy Owls. Bob’s work with Great Grays resulted in the publication of the much-acclaimed The Great Gray Owl – Phantom of the Northern Forest (with Robert Taylor) in 1980 and Lady Grayl – Owl with a Mission in 1994. Additionally, he was instrumental as mentor, writer and editor during the long gestation period of the completion of The Birds of Manitoba, always encouraging and helping to keep the project on track. Besides being a mentor for the above project, Bob also always took the time to engage young people, be it students of his or children. In this way he surely made them appreciate nature.
Besides writing about birds, and owls in particular, Bob was also the author or co-author of many articles and books on mammals, herps, and nature in general. He was also a poet. His works include Woman by the Shore and other poems (1990), a tribute to his friend and naturalist Louise de Kirilene Lawrence, whom he greatly admired, The Mulch Pile and other poems (1993) and Spring Again and Other Poems (1997). His passion for birds and nature, plus his love of communicating this passion shine throughout all his writings.
Bob was predeceased by his wife of 62 years, Ruth, and is survived by his children Tamara, Birch, Brook, Redwood, Laurel, and his partner Nita.
Written and remembrances compiled by Rudolf Koes
Below follow a number of remembrances, some slightly edited, in alphabetical order, of people who had the fortune to know Bob.
Jim Duncan, Balmoral, MB – Director, Discover Owls.
“I had the privilege and pleasure of being Bob’s first and only graduate student studying the Great Gray Owl for my Ph.D. (1986-1992). As an adjunct professor at the University of Manitoba Bob diligently supervised me, raised funds, obtained permits, and introduced me to biologist Patsy lane, a field assistant he selected to help me. However, a subsequent lack of supervision on Bob’s part culminated in Patsy and I getting married in Nero’s backyard in 1990 with Bob Taylor photographing us with Nero’s tame owl “Lady Grayl” as one of the bridesmaids!
Bob instilled in me the importance of taking time to share the excitement of studying Great Gray Owls with landowners, students, colleagues, and the public. Every outing with Bob was an adventure and a learning experience. He once challenged me to lick an owl pellet in front of a crowd, and laughed when I did! Another time he asked me to drive him and Lady Grayl to a meeting in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where he was presenting to fellow ornithologists. Enroute, to save money, Bob, his owl, and I shared a motel room (Bob had to sneak the owl in and out). None of us slept well that night as Lady Grayl excitedly flew around the room bumping into pictures, knocking over lamps, pouncing on out toes, and even tried to nibble my nose when I snored.
Our last visit to Bob and his loving partner Nita was on 26 December 2022 to celebrate his 100th birthday. We gave him a card and a long soft Great Gray Owl breast feather. After tickling him with the feather he held it up to the light and said “beautiful” and “I remember….”. He passed peacefully a few weeks later. I will dearly miss my mentor of 37 years.”
Edited by Patsy Lane
Dennis Fast, Steinbach, MB – birder and photographer.
“In early June 1985 probably the most famous North American ornithologist after John James Audubon, Roger Tory Peterson, came to Manitoba to visit Bob Nero, while on his way to Churchill. My friend Rudolf Koes and I were invited to spend the day with them. The day was 8 June, one of the windiest in Manitoba history. The wind made birding difficult at Oak Hammock Marsh, but Peterson was more interested in photographing Richardson’s Ground-Squirrels anyway, images of which he could use as references for his paintings.
In spite of the wind, the four of us did concentrate a fair bit of our time on birding and this led to an incredible moment when a Laughing Gull flew by – for me Manitoba “lifer” number 315 at the time and I still smile when I think of the moment.
Photo of Bob, Dennis Fast, Roger Tory Peterson and Rudolf Koes at Oak Hammock Marsh supplied by Dennis Fast.
We ended up for a barbeque at Bob’s place, where we spent considerable time photographing the rapidly maturing Lady Grayl. I still cherish the moment when I was able to photograph Bob and RTP with the owl on their respective arms. My biggest regret was that I forgot to get a photo of myself with Lady Grayl when I had the chance!”
“I first met Dr Bob shortly after arriving in Manitoba from the University of Dela-ware, to work for the Delta Waterfowl Research Station. Little did I know at that time that I would be working with him on the Delta Marsh Project as Marsh Manager. I re-call during a field trip to the former Clandeboye dam with the supervising committee in-vestigating the possible removal of that structure. District supervisor C. K. Smith kept challenging Bob to find some evidence of indigenous use of the marsh. About five minutes later Bob found and handed him a flint arrowhead.
Bob took me out to show me the “The Site” where he was searching a bare sand area for evidence of previous inhabitants. “The Site” was located south of the Portage Sandhills. To me the area looked particularly barren. But Bob found evidence of a tem-porary encampment, resulting in his publication of “The Site”. Many years later I talked to the owner of the pasture, who was using it in his PMU operation. He complained that he wanted to revegetate the sandy area and put in a dugout for his horses, but Bob wanted to preserve it as an archaeological site.
I recall an incident that illustrates Bob’s compassion for all living things. Bob and I along with Buster (his Dog) were walking through the Portage Sandhills WMA, at least Bob and I were walking, Buster was happily scampering through the woods. After about two hours of this Buster collapsed. We were several miles from the car and Bob had to walk back to get it to rescue Buster.
I thoroughly enjoyed my association with Dr Bob through the years”.
Rudolf Koes, Winnipeg, MB – life-long birder.
On one of Bob and Herb’s banding forays I was lucky enough to meet them and see them in action. They had caught a Northern Hawk-Owl (another target species for banding). As Bob often did, he would bow his head and offer his hair to the owl for preening. On this occasion, however, the owl took a liking to Bob’s ear and gave it a vicious nip, causing a stream of blood. The dangers of the job! Unperturbed, Bob and Herb continued their banding.
Photo of Great Gray Owl preening Bob’s hair supplied by Dennis Fast.
“Virtually every aspect of nature was of interest to Bob. He published on ornithology, mammology, herpetology, entomology and archeology. He was blessed with some rare and special talents – a meticulous eye for detail and the ability to discover common-sense explanations for apparently complex problems. He wrote with great skill, sensitivity and power. I had the privilege of presenting him with the first-ever Seton Medal on 25 April 1981. This Distinguished Naturalist Award was created by the Manitoba Naturalists Society to acknowledge major contributions made to the knowledge of natural history in the province. Bob was a most worthy recipient of this award”.
Rob Parsons, Winnipeg, MB – life-long birder and naturalist
“I first met Bob in the early 1980s, but I’ve been a real fan of him ever since the day in March of 1985 when he had me hold a wild Great Gray Owl while he and his long-time bird-banding companion, Herb Copland, caught a second bird nearby. A friend and I were out birding and came upon Bob and Herb in the ditch along PR 308 north of Sprague, attempting to catch two owls in close proximity to each other. The birds had been more concerned about the presence of each other, but finally one flew into the lure. Bob said the second bird would be much more likely to come in if I were to take the first bird into my car, out of sight of the other bird. I hesitated as I could not quite believe what he was asking me to do, but with that, he practically threw the first bird into my arms and we retreated into my car where I spent 20 minutes holding this bird. Bob was quickly proven correct, with the second owl coming in to the lure almost immediately. So we watched them go about banding the second bird until it was released and then we passed the first bird back to Bob for them to band it. Bob was a wonderful character who will long be remembered among the nature-loving public”.
Spencer Sealy – Winnipeg, MB – retired ornithologist, University of Manitoba.
“By the time my family arrived in Battleford, SK in the summer of 1958, my interest in birds had blossomed, but it were the bats in my high school that brought me in contact with Bob Nero, then curator at the Museum in Regina. Many letters, shared observations, and a few specimens later, convinced me that I should become an ornithologist. At the American Ornithologists’ Union meeting in Regina in 1959, Bob found time to chat with aspiring young ornithologists, including me. The following year, Bob suggested that Dr. Robert Storer visit me to check on an Eared Grebe colony I reported the previous year. Storer later became my PhD advisor at the University of Michigan. In 1965, Ross Lein and I shared Bob’s connection with nature, and his wit, while surveying the birds of Moose Mountain Provincial Park. With PhD in hand, I arrived in Manitoba in 1972. Bob showed me my first Great Gray Owl nest the following spring, and for the next ten years, Herb Copland, Bob and I drove hundreds of miles in winter searching for owls and their nests. Among the highlights were our conversations about why owls nested here one year, but not the next, or not at all. Unforgettable was the sight of Bob setting off across the snow, carrying a fish net in one hand and a mouse in the other, while being watched by the owl waiting to be banded. The gleam in his eyes never shone more brightly than when he was releasing a banded owl. In the ensuing years, we continued to talk about owls and wrote about Great Gray Owl behaviour we observed years earlier. If one person besides my parents influenced the early development of my career in a profound way, it was Bob Nero”.
Peter Taylor – Pinawa, MB – life-long naturalist.
“I first met Bob Nero when he came out to the Whiteshell nuclear laboratories near Pinawa to present a general-interest seminar on his Great Gray Owl research. I had recently started working there as a research chemist, and was also in the early stages of becoming the local “bird guy”. I remember being somewhat over-awed, stumbling for words when I met Bob after the seminar. Not long after that, however, he was tremendously helpful and encouraging in reviewing draft versions of my local bird book, “Wings along the Winnipeg” (1983).
For some 20 years Bob was a steadying influence on the Manitoba Avian Research Committee (of the Manitoba Naturalists Society) as we worked on the seemingly endless project to write “The Birds of Manitoba” (2003). In particular, he was instrumental in getting word out to potential contributors of species accounts, providing our avocational group with a link to professional ornithology. He was deeply involved in the writing and editing, and importantly arranged premises for many of our countless evening meetings. After the book was published, I enjoyed occasional correspondence with Bob, usually sparked by some chance observation he had made of birds or butterflies, and often accompanied by a topical poem. Other than a few chance encounters with him and Herb when they were banding owls in the Pinawa area, I only spent a few hours in the field with Bob on a wild owl chase, around 1985. He was following up on a Great Gray Owl nest report from the Agassiz Provincial Forest east of Beausejour, and invited me along for the ride. Unfortunately it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, and it was a Great Horned Owl that glared at us over the rim of the nest”.
Bob Wrigley – Winnipeg, MB – colleague and friend.
“While there had been some effort by early associates of the Manitoba Museum to gather the few records of the Cougar in Manitoba, staff of the Manitoba Wildlife Branch did not take these seriously, except for Bob Nero. Supported by T. White’s “History of the Cougar in Saskatchewan” (Blue Jay 1967), Bob began to actively encourage the reporting of sightings from conservation officers and the public, which led to the appearance in the Wildlife Branch of a mildly mocking poem about Bob Nero and his mythical cat. Bob responded in an article in August 1973, stating that; “Although there will always be sceptics, the evidence on hand is substantial”. Four months later, at the height of the ‘Cougar Controversy’, a Cougar was shot on a farm near Stead, Manitoba. What a stir that caused! During succeeding years, Bob Nero and others made further efforts to contact and interview people who had sighted Cougars in the province, and a new chapter in the history of this animal was underway. This led to the Manitoba Museum publication in 1982 of the book; “The Story of the Cougar in Manitoba”, by Robert E. Wrigley and Robert W. Nero”.