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Chandler S. Robbins, Birding Legend

12-5-07-02 [Chan Robbins]Chandler S. Robbins, 94, is a living legend, one of the most important figures in the history of bird identification, bird conservation, and birder education. In the print version of the September 2012 Birding, we proudly present an extended interview with Robbins, along with tributes by a dozen conservationists and educators whose careers have been significantly influenced by him.
Right: Chandler S. Robbins discourses on some matter or matters related to bird biology. In a moment, he will erupt into his legendary smile. Note also his eternal and legendary hairdo.

Now let’s be honest about something: That interview and those tributes only scrape the tip of the iceberg. There is much, much more to Chan Robbins’ legacy. Anybody who’s been birding for any amount of time in North America has been affected in some way or another by Chan Robbins. For a great many of us, it’s personal: So many of us have “Chan stories.”

Do you have a Chan story? Please share it in the comments field, below.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • The AOU met in Madison, Wisconsin, when I was a teacher there in the late 70s. I helped set up museum exhibits for a couple of workshops, and led a few field trips to my favorite birding spot. It was late July, so not many birds were still singing and I was a very nervous and easily-intimidated 20-something. A sweet, rather courtly gentleman came along on my field trip, plying me with questions about the differences between my “outhouse redstart” and “main path redstart”–I could pick out differences in their songs that made it easy to tell which was which. And he kept going on and on about how cool it was that I knew exactly where a Virginia Rail would be with her chicks. Of all the people along, he was by far the most attentive and fun. At the end, he told me that his brother had told him if I was leading a trip, he should go along, and he was sure happy he did. I asked who his brother was, and he said Sam Robbins. And suddenly it hit me–he was Chandler Robbins! My jaw must have dropped, I was so thrilled. I loved everything about his Golden Guide, knew about his Breeding Bird Survey, and was thrilled to meet him in person.

    At the banquet, he saved a place for me at his table (imagine that!) and was the most warm, kind, knowledgeable person I’d ever met.

    A few years later, after we’d moved to Duluth, he gave a seminar at the University of Minnesota which I showed up at. When I walked in, he walked up, shook my hand, and said, “Laura, I don’t know if you’ll remember me, but I’m Chandler Robbins.” Talk about unassuming!

    Over the years, he’s donated his royalties from the Golden Guide to supporting and promoting ornithology in the tropics, and given countless hours of his own time in training banders and other researchers.

    I’ve run into him a few more times, and each time he manages to remember who I am. The last time was in Guatemala in 2007. He remembered by name a great many of the local guides and ornithologists, too–and was clearly a most beloved person there, where he was given a major award.

    I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have met this generous-spirited, kind human being.

    I got a few photos in Guatemala. Here are his binoculars:

    Here he is, hearing every sound:

    And here is my most treasured possession: (This is my third copy of the field guide. It was hard-bound and I hardly ever used it after he signed it, taking out my paperbound second copy after the first copy’s pages had all fallen out and been cut up for flash cards for my students.)

  • One other little point. Many people heard about the 60+ year-old Laysan Albatross re-seen on Midway Island just before, and then after, the tsunami last year, who made international news and was nicknamed “Wisdom.” She was the oldest known banded bird in the world. She happened to have been originally banded by Chandler Robbins. When the military wanted to eliminate albatrosses from the island when they were about to open it to jet traffic following WWII, Robbins and a few other F&W people spearheaded an effort to study the albatrosses’ nesting habits to figure out how they could successfully lay out safe runways while protecting the birds, too.

  • Well, I popped these off in answer to Ted’s blog post before reading the interview–I see this was ably covered in the article. It was a GREAT interview!!

  • I was fortunate enough to travel with Chan to the Yucatan Peninsula in January of 1991. I was so honored to be learning from Chan the whole month, and he provided me a wonderful introduction to the Neotropics. I’ll never forget scouting a site that was at the time called Rancho Sandoval, but is now a protected site that Chan and others from Patuxent and ProNatura all succeeded in making into a reserve. We had to scout this remote area on horseback and the horses were not accustomed to dealing with gringos. I’d never ridden horseback before and the horse I mounted shot off like a rocket and all I could do was hang on for dear life, until one of the ranch-hands helped corral me! I saw my first Aplomado Falcons and Common Tody-Flycatchers on that trip.

  • Congratulation Sr. Robbins

  • Robin Leong

    I too, had the pleasure of meeting Chan at an AOU meeting but in San Francisco in the 1980’s. Like Laura, he signed my treasured Golden Book. I remember he seem to be a down to earth biologist giving helpful antidotes in the NORAC meetings that I attended. After meeting him, his quiet enthusiasm for the usefulness of BBS made me seek an unused route that I continue to do to this day.

  • Chet Ogan

    I have two, maybe 3, Chan Robbins stories.
    Like many birders my first recollection of Chan Robbins came from using his Golden Guide for an ornithology class at Humboldt State University in 1968. As I became an “ear birder” I made a lot of use of the sonograms, an excellent new concept in a bird guide; I also liked seeing the range map on the same page as the bird. I met Chan first in 1987 while doing a block blitz for the New Hampshire Breeding Bird Atlas. This was in extreme upstate NH on a block that adjoined the Canada border along a brook. I worked with Sally Merrill along some logging roads in the uplands, Chandler was working the riparian area. as we finished Chan pointed up in a tree between the road and brook to a Black-billed Cuckoo. This was my lifer Black-billed Cuckoo. I remember the local farmer accusing us of leaving his wire fence open and letting the milk cows out; we didn’t do it, somehow the cows worked the fence loose. Luckily they did not wander very far. From there we visited a Peregrine Falcon hack site that Chan was instrumental in setting up.
    My next meeting of Chan was at a Neotropical Migratory Bird symposium in 1992 at Estes Park, Colorado where he presented a couple of papers.
    My third Chan Robbins story involves an eBird list that I submitted based on a list of birds identified by Chandler A. Robbins of Oncutt, MA, around the Colonial Inn, Concord, MA, 20 May 1910. This, I believe, was an uncle of Chan Robbins. My great great grandfather was the owner and manager of the famous Colonial Inn on Concord Square in Massachusetts where, in 1775, the “shot heard around the wold” was fired. Chandler A Robbins left a list of 50 bird species in the hotel register which I then submitted to eBird. I would like to hear from Chan Robbins on what his relationship is to this Chandler A. Robbins of Oncutt, Massachusetts.

  • Richard Carlson

    I was lucky enough to be in the Maryland Ornithological Society in the mid-1960’s where Chan was quite active. Chan heard that my young wife and I would periodically drive out to West Virginia to hike or cave. He “volunteered” us to try out his first WVa BBS route in about 1966. Those early routes were generated from ancient USGS maps with darts and dice. We were in the Seneca Rocks area where nearly all roads follow the valleys trending SW NE , and we got stuck on a busy highway. We were delighted when the route finally turned off onto a dirt road but that road became worse and worse. Finally, my increasingly nervous wife ordered me to stop the car and scout ahead on foot. Rounding the next corner, I found myself on the precipitous edge of an old coal mine! We told Chan he needed a better map.

    On a MOS trip to Ocean City that Spring I became a lucky member of the tiny fraternity who has corrected a Chan Robbins I D. We were all standing by the Ocean City bridge when Chan spotted a group of water birds flying in a line low over the water out of the morning mists. Chan waxed eloquent on how you knew these were Cormorants because of the way they flew in a line, but as I watched them emerge more clearly from the mist I had to point out that it was a large flock of American Oystercatchers flying just like Cormorants.

  • Jack Rogers

    While I do not know Mr. Robbins personally, my great-Grandfather (Robert E. Stewart, Sr.) was his mentor! I have communicated with Mr. Robbins via phone call, and had a great conversation with him! One of my most favorite Christmas presents ever would have to be a signed copy of his Golden Guide!

  • Manuel Lerdau

    I’m his bird-banding grandson, having been trained by folks who
    worked for him on Operation Recovery. I also had the privilege of
    working for him 35 years ago on his forest fragmentation project. I had
    come to Patuxent to interview for a summer job studying shorebirds on
    Hudson Bay; they offered the position to Claudia Wilds (which is kinda
    like coming in 2nd to Darwin for an evolution job) but sent me over to
    interview with Chan. The interview consisted of driving around Patuxent
    with the windows down; every time Chan pointed his finger I had to
    identify the singer. I must have done well enough because when we
    returned to the building I had a job offer.

    Chan was a good boss though not easy one. He expected a 12-14 hour work day 7 days a week during the field season and told me in all seriousness that I could
    rest in late July. I still vividly remember his teaching me to catch
    chuck-will’s-widows with my bare hands. He expected complete commitment
    from himself and inspired it in us.

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