Ornithologist, 89, is retired in name only

The Baltimore Sun

World-renowned birder Chandler S. Robbins pulls a logbook off a metal shelf in his office, called "the emeritus war room," at the federal Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel.

As the journal creaks open, a few pages come loose. The binding has worn down and the paper has faded to a sandy color over the decades. But the penmanship is graceful and precise -- obviously inked in an era before computers.

The book is a log of Robbins' first bird-banding expedition in 1937. As a young man in Belmont, Mass., he was too young to obtain a license to capture, band and track birds, so he illegally applied for one in his father's name.

Today, the 89-year-old Robbins is still working. He retired from the federal government at the end of 2005, but in name only. He works for free every day. He guides school field trips and in the spring rises early, before dawn, to log the sounds of bird chirps and calls across Maryland.

"It's partly because I have a guilty conscience," he said. "I need to catch up on things I should have done earlier. Some of my work on the tropics and Maryland has never been published. I just haven't had the time."

Robbins is the lead author of Birds of North America, an encyclopedia-style manual that has been in print since the 1960s. He invented the standard method for tracking bird populations across the continent.

He is also a preservationist, successfully fighting to preserve the Belt Woods in Prince George's County from development and other habitats in countries such as Guatemala. And as the decades have passed, Robbins must address more and more threats to the species, including global warming and wind energy.

"We have no idea how many birds are being killed in wind turbines," he said. "The energy people brush it aside."

His office is in the old library reading room at the wildlife center, a campus of brick buildings, many of them in disrepair. He often wears tropical shirts -- any pattern with birds -- that his daughter sews for him, said longtime colleague Barbara Dowell, 65.

Dowell retired last year and also returns to work, although not nearly as often as Robbins. The colleagues now pay their own way to ornithological conferences and research missions abroad. Robbins' schedule revolves around his wife, Eleanor, 91, who requires a caregiver, and their four children, Dowell said.

"Eleanor has always been behind him," Dowell said. "One thing I've admired is that they've always contributed financially to scholarships and land conservation here and in the tropics."

Robbins' father got him interested in birding, he said. They would go for walks or to the zoo, and his father would point out birds and teach him how to identify them. The younger Robbins attended Harvard University and majored in physics, after being told by his freshman adviser that there were no jobs in ornithology.

"He told me to go into something else where I could at least make money to support myself and my family," Robbins said.

After graduation, Robbins started teaching at a private school in Vermont and then saw an ad in a birding newsletter for a job at the U.S. Geological Survey in Maryland. He met his wife on the job. She was part of a tour group from the D.C. Audubon Society.

"You know the saying, 'Birds of a feather flock together,' " Robbins said, grinning.

The job included some interesting challenges, including keeping Laysan Albatrosses, also known as gooney birds, away from military aircraft landing at Midway Island to refuel in the 1950s and '60s.

Robbins tried using sounds to repel the birds from the runway and even relocated the birds to islands 500 miles away, but they would always come back, he said.

"We determined that the birds were using the updraft from the dunes on the south shore of the island to sail back and forth to their nesting area," he said. "So we got rid of the dunes. And then we paved strips on each side of the runway because the birds nest everywhere except on pavement."

In the mid-1960s, he developed an annual, nationwide bird count still in operation today. Robbins maps the routes, and volunteers pull over to the side of the road every half-mile, get out and listen for three minutes, jotting down the sources of the sounds. Robbins still does the six routes in Maryland himself.

His most important contribution "is setting up long-term projects that are repeatable," Dowell said. "He has provided really good base-line information that others are now adding to."

In 1950, Robbins purchased a 2 1/2 -acre homestead in Laurel, and he has been tracking visiting birds migrating there ever since. The reduction of "idle land" in the area, Robbins said, has resulted in the disappearance of meadowlarks and sparrows from his property.

Many birds need to nest deep inside forests to avoid predators that roam the edges, such as deer and fowl. Development has created more and more edges and less dense forest.

"How long has it been since you've seen a horse or a cow?" he asked. "I used to see them every day. It's the same way with some birds."

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad