Ornithologist Chandler Robbins has lifelong passion for things with wings
By Janene Holzberg
May 26, 2016 | 6:00 AM
Although his 98th birthday looms in July, Chandler Robbins is still showing up at the office.
The longtime Brooklyn Bridge Road resident, who officially retired in 2005 after a 60-year career, puts in three half-days a week at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in South Laurel.
This comes as no surprise to colleagues of the famed ornithologist.
After all, Robbins – whom colleagues affectionately refer to as "Chan" and describe as the epitome of a gentleman scholar – has spent more than seven decades watching, listening, recording, counting, banding and studying birds.
As founder of the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey – the groundbreaking program he organized in 1966 to monitor avian populations trends – and co-author of the highly respected "Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification" published in the same year, the esteemed scientist remains passionate about his work.
He attributes his lengthy career to a simple maxim: "When a lot is expected of you, you do as much as you can to squeeze it all in."
Robbins sits by a large window in his file-clogged office, nicknamed the "Emeritus War Room," where he's completing a history of breeding bird atlases, among other projects.
He drove himself there up until two years ago and though he currently uses a walker to get around, he is remarkably spry.
And he still takes birding trips to exotic locales with family members — "to show them the places where I've worked," he says — that usually include his daughter and frequent companion, Jane Robbins, a retired teacher. Though a recent excursion to Panama was canceled, they are contemplating a jaunt to Guatemala in the fall.
Robbins has seen and done a lot in his lifetime, a destiny he did not foresee when he took up birding as a hobby at age 12.
He earned a physics degree in 1940 from Harvard, where he was acquainted with fellow classmate John F. Kennedy.
In his early career at Patuxent he worked with Rachel Carson, a biologist who served as the technical editor of DDT studies he designed in the 1950s before she went on to write "Silent Spring," the 1962 book that documented the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment, and especially on birds.
John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York, described Robbins as "one of the world's most important figures in ornithology and conservation."
"The BBS is still the most important continental assessment of its time for birds," he said. "And the Golden Guide that Chan co-wrote was revolutionary in its treatment, changing the way field guides were written forevermore."
Sam Droege, a former protégé of Robbins' who is currently a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said if Robbins hadn't started the breeding bird survey no one else would have, and biologists wouldn't have had access to valuable data that has been used and re-used millions of times.
"Our understanding of birds is unique because Chan organized the BBS," he said. "It's the Census Bureau for birds."
Fitzpatrick said that Robbins also "waved the flag in the 1970s and 1980s about the importance of forest fragmentation," which is the breaking apart of the forest into small islands, and that he influenced a new generation of biologists to "pick up the flag and carry it farther."
Yet, Robbins remains humble and graciously replies to questions he's been asked dozens of times, such as whether he has a favorite bird.
He does, and it's the common house wren, an unremarkable-looking brown bird that happens to unleash "an amazingly high-pitched and intricate song," he said.
Robbins earliest memory was as a toddler being pushed in a stroller by his mother through the public library in his hometown of Belmont, Mass., where he spied a display of mounted birds.
This was no fleeting infatuation. The display, which the mother and son revisited often, lit a slow-burning fire in him that sparked a lifelong interest that has never waned.
After college, he taught high school science in Vermont before being drafted in 1942. A conscientious objector, he was assigned to clear debris from blocked roadways at forest service camps in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
When an offer came in 1943 to band birds at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Robbins jumped at the chance, and two years later became a junior biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, the research center is overseen by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Robbins even met his future wife, Eleanor – who wrote a bird-watching column in the Laurel Leader for 40 years – on a bird walk in 1946. Their encounter led to private bird walks for two, he joked, and a wedding two years later. They had four children; she died in 2008.
The ornithologist has traveled around the world to study and band birds, a practice in which the creatures are caught in finely-woven nets in order to place an identifying band on one leg before releasing them back into the wild. Banding allows scientists to study dispersal and migration, behavior and social structure, life-span and survival rate, reproductive success and population growth.
People have often sought out his expertise, like the time he was asked for advice on what to do about tuna nets that were causing albatross deaths near Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific Ocean.
That's the place near Hawaii where Chandler Robbins first encountered Wisdom, a Laysan albatross that, at age 65 or so, is considered to currently be the oldest living bird in the breeding bird survey database.
He banded Wisdom in 1956, and then coincidentally re-banded her in 2002. Other scientists came across the bird yet again in February as she fed her chick, and replaced her band once again.
While he continued to band birds until 2013, Robbins now focuses on keeping a journal of the birds he sees on his three-acre property in Laurel, which backs up to the Patuxent River.
"What fascinates me is the many kinds of birds in this area," he said. "On a good day I might see a hundred species."
Robbins recommends that everyone consider taking up birding as a pastime, and says it can inspire a commitment to wildlife conservation.
"Keeping a list of the birds you see in your own yard is an interesting hobby," he said.
He just recently added entries #201 and #202 – a bald eagle and a raven – to his personal record of different species he has seen.
Robbins said he and others have been sounding the alarm about birds losing their habitats for more than 50 years, and there are a lot of things mankind could be doing better.
"It's too quiet; there are not enough warblers anymore," he lamented. "People don't give birds a second thought when they use pesticides.