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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Renowned FWS Ornithologist Chandler Robbins Dies

Chandler Robbins   Robbins banding an albatross at Midway Island in 1966. 

Renowned Service ornithologist Chandler Robbins died March 20. He was 98. Born July 17, 1918, in Boston, Robbins devoted his life to birds, their study and protection.

He graduated from Harvard with a degree in physics and began teaching math and science in Vermont. Robbins then joined the Service in 1945 as a junior biologist at Patuxent Research Refuge, where he engaged in early research on the effects of DDT and had his papers edited by his colleague Rachel Carson.

Service retiree David Klinger remembers: "Several of us from the National Conservation Training Center got together at Patuxent around 2007, about the time of the centennial of Rachel Carson's birth.  We wanted to know what Chan Robbins could tell us about Carson, as well as about his own eventful life.  We were smart enough to know we needed an oral history with this 'grand old man' of ornithology, and, for hours, he didn't disappoint.”

Robbins was also the one who first banded the Laysan albatross named Wisdom in 1956. He re-banded the world’s oldest known banded bird in 2002.

Chandler Robbins   Robbins holds mist-netted bird for a photographer. Photo courtesy USGS

During his 60 years of full-time work at Patuxent (he retired in 2005), Robbins made critical contributions to research on forest fragmentation, bird banding, breeding bird surveys and bird identification. He was a senior author of The Field Guide to Birds of North America, organizer of the North American Breeding Bird Survey and much more.

"Chandler Robbins was the 'dean' of the bird conservation world, one might say," says Jerome Ford, assistant director for Migratory Birds. "His amazing legacy lives on every day in the work of our dedicated Migratory Bird Program employees."

A listing of groups that have honored him, even just through 2005, reads like a who's who of conservation groups. The National Audubon Society named him as one of 100 Champions of Conservation of the 20th Century (read an article on Robbins in Audubon Magazine). In 2000, the American Birding Association established the ABA Chandler Robbins Education/Conservation Award (read an article on Robbins in ABA’s Birding as well as tributes to Robbins ABA collected in 2012).

Chandler Robbins   Robbins uses his binoculars. Photo by Barbara Dowell, courtesy USGS

"What symbolized Chan Robbins most eloquently to me was his worn-out old pair of government binoculars,” Klinger says. “Dented, heavy as lead and beat to hell.  I hope they go into a Fish and Wildlife Service museum some day.  He could have afforded the finest optics in the world, but he was comfortable with what he had.  His acuity of eye and ear exceeded the powers of mere physics.” 

In “retirement,” Robbins became "Scientist Emeritus" at Patuxent and continued to work at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

“I got to bird with two true recognized luminaries in the birding world – Roger Tory Peterson and Chandler Robbins, so I guess you can say I've lived a full life,” says Klinger.


in reference to his beat-up old binoculars, I asked him out in the field one time why he didn't buy a new pair. He held them up give his quiet unassuming grin and said they're old, a little beat up but there's a lot of great birds in them. Rest in peace Chan you will surely be missed.
# Posted By Chuck Parker | 3/21/17 9:15 PM

What a honor to know this kind man.
# Posted By Deb Rudis | 3/22/17 1:29 PM

Although I did not have the good fortune of knowing Chandler Robbins, I certainly benefitted from his many contributions to our work and to science in general. As a long-time member of the Environmental Contaminants program, he is one of the giants in whose shadow I walk each day. While his enthusiasm for our work will most certainly be missed, his legacy will live on to inspire new generations of biologists to work for conservation.
# Posted By Carol Roberts | 3/22/17 2:38 PM

Our mentor and friend has broken the surly bonds of earth. What a wonderful life he had and we were so much better off from knowing him. Rest easy Chan. I read the above comment on RTP and Chan birding and remember the day when we, those two greats and John Bull were in our raptor blind for a few hours of fun. That was indeed a full birding/banding life.
# Posted By John and Sue Gregoire | 3/23/17 12:28 PM

Robbins was a significant author of the "Golden Field Guide" to birds. I got my first copy for Christmas when I was 9 years old, so 1968. I think i would have given up on birding if I had been stuck with Peterson and Pugh. Although unknown to a younger generation of birders, the Golden Field Guide was revolutionary in the way it displayed all information on a species on the same page. Getting that book was the single most important moment in my lifelong passion that could never be adequately be described as "hobby".
# Posted By Lars Per Norgren | 3/23/17 5:49 PM

Chan was a wonderful colleague and always willing to answer questions about Patuxent and about birds from newly employed biologists at the Center, which I was in 1964 as a bio-tech. His enthusiasm for ornithology and his cheerful demeanor accompanied with a twinkle in his eye was always disarming to young biologists embarking on a career. I will not forget him or the many enlightening talks he gave at the Paxtuent Bird Club in Laurel. His contributions to monitoring and assessing bird populations were ground-breaking and innovative when initiated, and those techniques continue to be followed today. We have lost a true professional and dear friend.
# Posted By Jerry Longcore | 3/24/17 9:57 AM

I only read about Chan and always wished I'd met him-- a true legend and no better friend of birds. What a career; what a life; what an example for us all. RIP.
# Posted By Jeff Reiter | 3/24/17 8:56 PM

I was extremely fortunate to have spent my entire career at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center as a colleague of Chan. He was a perfect example and role model for us fellow scientists, both for the enthusiasm and joy with which he conducted his work and his quiet, modest demeanor. He was unusual among scientists as having been extremely influential to not only the scientific world of ornithology, but also the amateur birding community. I will certainly miss the smile that always accompanied his greeting whenever he would pass me or anyone else. I am privileged to have known him and will miss him greatly.
# Posted By Jim Nichols | 4/5/17 9:14 AM
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