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In Memoriam

Chandler "Chan" Robbins

Chandler "Chan" Robbins

Born: July 17, 1918
Died: March 20, 2017

Chandler Seymour Robbins, renowned American ornithologist and one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s last living links to author and editor Rachel Carson, died March 20, 2017, at age 98.

Robbins died in Laurel, Maryland, near the Federal Government’s Patuxent Research Refuge, the “mother church” of biological research into bird health, reproduction, and population dynamics; environmental contaminants; and urban wildlife studies in the post-World War II era.

Patuxent produced many of the last century’s leading scientific investigators and bureaucrat-naturalists; Robbins was one in a “who’s who” of luminaries who would endow American ornithology with scientific authority and credibility.

Yet he remained, at heart, a birdwatcher, joining Carson and others in the greater Washington area in the 1950s in forming an energetic circle of scientists who studied birds by day, recreated with birds on weekends in outings held by the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia.

It was to Patuxent that Robbins first came in 1943 as a 25-year-old conscientious objector during World War II. He never left. Assigned there by the government’s Civilian Public Service agency to alternative work, Robbins began by banding birds and, at the war’s end in 1945, joining the Fish and Wildlife Service’s predecessor agency as a junior biologist.

There, he helped perform some of the earliest investigations into the environmental effects of a new malarial insect-fighting compound known as DDT, hurriedly being rushed into service around the globe. It was Carson who, in 1945, wrote the first agency press releases that sent the first, tentative warnings of DDT’s consequences to birds and mammals that were documented in the early Patuxent aerial spraying tests. That data would later form the underpinning of Carson’s award-winning expose of the insidious chemical compound, “Silent Spring,” published 17 years later.

Robbins first knew Rachel Carson not as a literary celebrity or environmental champion, but simply as a fellow bureaucrat who proofread the Patuxent staff’s scientific papers and translated their findings for popular consumption. “She was just the person who edited our work,” Robbins later recollected. “And she was very, very good.”

Robbins’ greatest contribution to conservation may have been his conceptualization in the mid-1960s of the North American Breeding Bird Survey, an effort to standardize, monitor, and predict trends in continental bird populations using statistically-sound methods and data collection techniques, conducted by skilled bird observers relying on both sight and sound.

To birding amateurs, Robbins is perhaps best remembered and loved for his co-authorship of the “Birds of North America/A Guide to Field Identification,” published in 1966 by New York’s Golden Press as one of the first authoritative field guides to songbirds, waterfowl, and shorebirds. The charming volume nurtured an entire generation of school children and novice birders and is still in print today.

A modest, unassuming man, Robbins never shed his distinctive “field marks” — a pronounced Boston accent and a clipped, 1950s-style crew cut, splashed beneath with the colorful and loud plumage of a Hawaiian shirt. Born in 1918, Robbins grew up on the outskirts of Boston. Classically trained at Harvard, where he graduated in 1940, he studied under the famed Ludlow Griscom, still known as America’s “Dean of the Birdwatchers.”

Ironically, Robbins’ most iconic trademark was a beat-up and dented leather-bound pair of heavy, service-issue field binoculars, which he refused to trade in for more sophisticated optics. Preferring, instead, to rely on his own personal acuity of sight and sound that transcended mere physics, Robbins regarded his shabby and decidedly un-chic optics as a sort memory-book. “Why would I give these up?” Robbins once asked. “I’ve seen so, so many good birds in them.”

(Contributed by: "David Klinger, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (retired)")

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