A Look Back: Chandler Robbins

Refuge Update January-February 2012

Chandler Robbins initiated the influential North American Breeding Bird Survey and has participated in 346 Christmas Bird Counts, but he is most proud of his work related to forest fragmentation.
Credit: Barbara Dowell

Chandler Robbins is 93 and can still be reached at his office at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.

He is legendary among birders for his knowledge, dedication and friendliness. He began birding at age 12 near his home in Belmont, MA, and counts among his mentors and colleagues Roger Tory Peterson, Rachel Carson, Ira Gabrielson and Aldo Leopold.  He knew Carson not as a scientist but as the best technical editor he ever had, especially for his manuscripts about the effect of DDT on birds. 

Hired in 1945 as a junior biologist in the bird banding office at Patuxent Research Refuge, Robbins in 1965 initiated the North American Breeding Bird Survey, one of the world’s most influential science-based surveys of bird populations. Robbins says his wife, Eleanor, was convinced the survey wouldn’t work because “you can’t regiment people to the point of telling them they could only count for so many minutes and then they have to stop and go do the same thing at another spot.” Now, nearly 6,000 volunteers do just that, collecting data every summer along more than 3,000 routes in North America.

Robbins participated in the survey until 2008, when hearing loss forced him to stop. “I’m distorting the truth by not hearing all the high-pitched songs,” he says. He has participated in 346 Christmas Bird Counts – far more than anyone ever. 

In addition to writing more than 500 professional publications, Robbins wrote A Guide to Field Identification of the Birds of North America with Bertel Bruun and Herbert Zim – but only after he was sure it would be different from Peterson’s guides.

Robbins takes his greatest pride, though, in his work on the impact of forest fragmentation: “Maryland is the only state that is protecting wildlife habitat species for forest interior species by following my recommendations on the sizes of forests that are too large to be disturbed.”

Officially retired in 2005 after 60 years of government service, Robbins remains intrigued by migrating birds. “Imagine birds from here going back to the tropics, to the same place where they wintered the winter before,” he says. “I can get lost in the woods at Patuxent.”