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This humble scientist, a ‘national treasure,’ showed us how to understand birds

Chandler S. Robbins, birdwatching at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge in Laurel, Md. (Barbara Dowell, USGS)

One summer day, two years after his long and extraordinary career as a federal worker ended, Chandler S. Robbins finally agreed to talk about himself at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. He was a rock star in the world of ornithology, the study of birds, but hardly anyone outside that tight circle knew him.

Robbins, who died Monday at 98, was a throwback to a world where gentlemen were kind, clean-cut and accomplished their work on the highest level while keeping their mouths shut about it. He wore a flat-top in the 1960s and 1970s when wild hair was a thing, friends said, and he never boasted and never tried to one-up anyone.

During that 2008 oral-history interview for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s digital library, Mark Madison and David Klinger coaxed out revelation after revelation from the Bruce Springsteen of birding. He authored the first guide book that illustrated about 700 species of birds in the United States — “Birds of North America: A Guide To Field Identification,” known fondly as the Golden Guide — creating a legion of die-hard followers, most of whom couldn’t pick him out in a crowd. He imagined and created the North American Breeding Bird Survey, an annual bird count still held today. He was among the first to document how the widely used chemical DDT was devastating bald eagles and other birds. His research on the topic was edited by Rachel Carson before she wrote “Silent Spring,” the book that transformed her into the mother of the modern environmental movement.

Finally, while working on the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the North Pacific for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Robbins placed a band on the leg of an albatross that turned out to be no ordinary bird. Somehow, amid tens of thousands of birds on the island, Robbins discovered his band on that same bird 45 years later, leading to the discovery that this Layson albatross, Wisdom, still flying and laying eggs today, is likely the oldest-known living bird.

Chandler Robbins, friend to birds and birdwatchers, dies at 98

Robbins worked at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel for 63 years, and he returned as a volunteer with an emeritus title another decade, often in a wheelchair, until last December.

Admirers described him as a national treasure. If the eagle is the national bird, some say, Robbins is certainly the national birder. When he sat for the interview to record his life, Robbins, born July 17, 1918, in Belmont, Mass., was about two weeks shy of his 90th birthday. His hearing was failing.

“What were your colleagues like back in 1943?” Madison asked.

“What were what?”

“Your colleagues like — your co-workers?” Madison repeated.

“Didn’t get the question.”

In time, the memories flowed, and Robbins explained how chemical spraying led to the creation of his signature work, the North American Breeding Bird Survey. It was 1962 or 1963, he said, and “we’re starting to get reports of large numbers of birds dying in areas that had been sprayed, especially in lawns, and college campuses, and that sort of thing.”

A letter arrived one day from a woman in the Midwest who was “concerned about large numbers of robins that were being killed by one of these operations. And she had a very interesting question: Is this going to effect the entire population?”

Robbins was stumped. “I had to write her back and say at the moment we don’t have any way to measure continental populations of birds,” he said. But it got him thinking. He figured out a way to enroll a bunch of amateurs across the country to carry out a census. He tested it out. “I figured we could do a trial run in Maryland and Delaware, where we knew we had a fairly small area with a lot of good birders, people who recognized birds by songs and by call notes, as well as by sight.”

He roped in colleagues, organized trial runs, found that watchers had to get out early because bird activity that starts at sunrise drops off by 9:30 a.m. “And by trying various combinations, we ended up with a system that we’re still using, which was starting half an hour before sunrise.”

DDT, which was banned in the 1970s, linked Robbins to Rachel Carson. He wrote scientific research about its effects, and sent it to an office outside the refuge where “she would rewrite things that I had written and put them in clearer language,” he said. “Most editors don’t do that.”

“I had no idea that she was also a scientist, and that she was going to come out with a book, ‘Silent Spring,’ and all her other books around us that are so famous today. … I didn’t appreciate her for the person that she was; I just appreciated her as an editor.”

Albatross named Wisdom astounds scientists by producing at chick at age 62

Wisdom the albatross drew me to Robbins. I interviewed him in 2013 when she returned to the Midway Atoll, hatched her 35th chick, and blew scientists’ minds. She was supposed to be dead; albatrosses weren’t supposed to live that long. At 62, she had surpassed the age of the oldest-known albatross, Grandma, of the Northern Royal species.

A series of setup questions failed to draw Robbins into talking about himself. He only talked about how he came to band Wisdom in 1956 and rediscover her in 2001. It seemed like tagging albatross was all he did. A similar conversation followed when I contacted him two years later, when he was 95 and Wisdom was a 64-year-old mother.

It wasn’t until the U.S. Geological Survey informed me of his death that I started to get a fuller picture, so I called people who worked with him in an effort to write an appreciation.

The director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, John Fitzpatrick, said Thursday that the Breeding Bird Survey is the most valuable part of Robbins’s legacy. “He founded the idea that we could get a careful, protocol project for estimating every bird species across the continent,” said Fitzpatrick, whose lab, one of the world’s premiere institutions for studying birds, presented Robbins with its highest award.

Gathering that many birders, he said, was like “gathering a thousand cats,” no pun intended. “That has been accomplished every year since 1966. It is the triple gold star estimate for bird populations. We have this amazing index of how the ecological systems of the continent have changed over the past 50 years.”

Fitzpatrick counts himself as a true admirer. He hitchhiked from Massachusetts to Maryland as a young man in 1971 for a chance to hang out with him. In a moment he said he’ll never forget, he pointed out a rare bird to Robbins, a Lawrence’s warbler. “He shouted to the entire group, ‘Stop what you’re doing. Come look at this bird. It’s the only one you’ll ever see in your life.’ ” 

Laura Erickson, a former schoolteacher and birder in Wisconsin, is another admirer. She said Thursday that she was surprised she didn’t faint when a kind stranger who complimented the way she led a field trip turned out to be her hero, Robbins.

“He was very soft-spoken. When ornithologists and birders get together, there’s a certain kind of one-upsmanship, where they talk about how many places they’ve been, and how many birds they’ve seen, to try to establish themselves in the pecking order,” Erickson said. “He didn’t do any of that. He didn’t do any man-splaining, and here’s a guy who actually knew the answers to questions.”

Both Fitzpatrick and Robbins had devoured the Golden Guide and were enraptured. “Robbins’s guide was revolutionary because it included all the birds in the entire continent, the songs of the birds, every bird,” Fitzpatrick said Thursday. “For me, reading it at 13 or 14 years old, it was fantastic.”

For Fitzpatrick, the book supplanted “The Peterson Field Guide to Birds,” which “had foibles to it,” he said. “I was a bird nerd,” hungering to know as much as possible, but not every bird was in Peterson’s book. In the Golden Guide, on the other hand, “I could look at every species of bird in North America, about 700. The paintings in the Robbins guide were lifelike, unlike Peterson’s diagram drawings, which were rigid and stern. Plus the Golden Guide had the songs, so you could see an electronic sonogram. Many guides since worldwide followed that model.”

In a blog post written shortly after she learned her “North Star” had died, Erickson recalled the moment she put Peterson’s book down and picked Robbins’s book up in the mid-1970s. “This second field guide was the book I fell in love with, the one I brought with me on every birding expedition. . . . It’s the field guide that carried me through two ornithology classes and helped me identify more than 400 of the first birds on my life list.”

Even though she knew Robbins’s life was nearing an end, Erickson said the news of his death “was a gut punch. It was like someone in my family had died. I had only seen him about five or six times in my life. My entire life, ever since that meeting in Madison, he has been the one person I most want to be like.”