Chandler Robbins Inspired Generations of Scientists and Birders, 1918-2017

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U.S. Geological Survey scientist emeritus Chandler S. Robbins, whose heartfelt love of birds, quicksilver mind, boundless energy and sunny demeanor made him a major force in bird conservation in the U.S. and worldwide, died Monday, March 20 at the age of 98.

Robbins in the jungle
On a research trip in a Mexican jungle, Chandler Robbins uses a leaf as an umbrella. Photo: David Holmes, USGS. (Public domain.)

In a career spanning more than 70 years as a research ornithologist for the federal government, Robbins played pivotal roles in studies that reshaped our understanding of birds’ life cycles, their movements across the Americas, their changing populations and their ecological needs. In the 1940s and 1950s, he took part in some of the first studies of the effects of pesticides like DDT on bird reproduction. In 1966 he founded the North American Breeding Bird Survey, which provided some of the first continent-wide data on the decline of many common bird species, helped sparked international efforts to conserve migratory bird habitat, and inspired a host of other citizen science initiatives. In the 1980s he was the co-author of influential studies on the importance of large, unbroken tracts of forests to bird conservation.

Robbins instilled a love of birds and birding in millions of Americans as the co-author of the easy-to-use “Birds of North America:  A Guide to Field Identification.” Published in 1966, the so-called “Golden Guide” is still in print. It has sold more than five million copies and introduced generations of young people to a pastime now enjoyed by an estimated one in five Americans.

“He was one of the most influential ornithologists, and one of the most inspiring ambassadors for bird conservation, of modern times,” said John French, director of the USGS’ Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, Robbins’ professional home for virtually his entire career. “Everyone who worked with him was struck by his imaginative approach to solving scientific problems, his energy, and his unquenchable love for birds. I knew him as a kind and gentle soul and his field guide was instrumental in my choice of a career, as I suspect it was for many others.”

Born July 17, 1918 in Belmont, Massachusetts, Robbins once said his earliest memory was, as a toddler, riding in a stroller past a display of mounted birds at the town library. After graduating from Harvard College and a stint teaching high school in Vermont, in 1943 he joined the staff of the Laurel, Maryland center as a junior biologist.

Soon afterward he and colleagues at the center began documenting the effects of DDT on birds, including eagle and osprey eggs rendered so thin they shattered in the nests. The findings, as documented by his colleague and editor Rachel Carson in the 1962 classic “Silent Spring,” helped inspire the environmental movement.

In 1965, after a worried bird-watcher asked him whether common birds like American robins were becoming rarer, Robbins came up with a way to answer that question while exploiting Americans’ twin passions for birds and cars. His North American Breeding Bird Survey called for volunteers to get behind the wheel a half-hour before dawn on a summer morning and drive a prearranged route, stopping every half-mile to tally the birds they heard or saw. This ingenious method made it possible for bird researchers to gather reliable continent-wide information consistently and at very little cost, and provided them with a much wider view than ever before of the great sweep of bird life ceaselessly flowing across the continent.

Chandler Robbins banding song birds in 1948
Chandler Robbins in 1948 collecting, banding and releasing songbirds at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Public domain.)

“It is difficult to imagine that anyone other than Chan had the combination of logistical expertise, contacts in the birding community, and pure stamina needed to to carry out such a survey with very limited support. He made it a success,” said Patuxent wildlife research biologist John Sauer, a longtime colleague.

The Breeding Bird Survey is now the main monitoring program for birds in North America, with 51 years of data on the changing populations of more than 500 bird species – an invaluable resource. In the 1970s the data revealed previously hidden declines among bluebirds, orioles, sparrows, meadowlarks and many beloved backyard birds.

“The Breeding Bird Survey changed the scope of bird research,” said French.  “We began to focus not just on endangered species, but also on common birds and the conditions that allow them to survive and thrive. We also realized that migratory species are affected not just by changes in their habitats in North America, but also by what happens in their overwintering sites in Central and South America. We began to take a broader view of the science of bird conservation, in part as a result of Chan Robbins’ work.”

Officially, Robbins’ career as an influential bird scientist lasted a mere 60 years until his retirement in 2005. In reality, he continued to work three half-days a week in an office at Patuxent, with a sign above the door reading “Emeritus War Room,” until 2016. A colleague recalled watching him arrive at work during a recent winter snowstorm, snowflakes dusting his signature flat-top haircut.

Robbins received the Department of Interior’s Meritorious Service Award, an honorary Doctorate of Sciences from the University of Maryland, the 2000 Audubon Medal from the National Audubon Society, and top awards from the American Birding Association, the American Ornithologists’ Union, the Linnean Society of New York and others. His work took him to all 50 states, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, Africa, the Indian Ocean and the North and South Pacific.

In the last decade of his life he enjoyed pop culture fame as the man who banded Wisdom, a Laysan albatross that is believed to be the oldest banded bird in the wild, aged at least 66. On a visit to Midway Island in the South Pacific in 1956, Robbins placed an identifying band on the leg of a female albatross that he judged to be at least five years old. In 2002, on a return trip to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, Robbins sighted the same bird and gave her a new band. At this writing in spring 2017, Wisdom is raising a new chick, whose progress is chronicled on a Facebook page.

Wherever he went, a battered pair of binoculars issued to him by the federal government in the 1960s, or perhaps even earlier, went with him. The dented eyepieces had not been round since who knows when. The original leather cover wore completely away, and its handmade replacement became almost as bare. Robbins had many chances to swap them for a new pair with updated optics, but he always refused. “A lot of good birds in there,” he once said, patting them.

 

Chandler Robbins bird watching
Chandler Robbins with his trusty binoculars. Photo by Barbara Dowell, USGS. (Public domain.)