Chandler Seymour Robbins, one of the greatest birders and field ornithologists of all time, died yesterday in Columbia, Maryland. He was 98.
Robbins created the Golden Guide, among the most influential bird books ever published, and he conceived the Breeding Bird Survey, a landmark achievement in biological conservation. His contributions to ornithology and bird conservation were prodigious.
Robbins’ professional career, spanning seven decades, significantly influenced nearly every serious birder and ornithologist in the New World. Because of Robbins, we are all better citizen-scientists. And there is something else: Because of Robbins, we are better citizens, period.
Robbins, known to all as “Chan,” was universally acclaimed as a gentleman. Chan was gracious and giving. He was possessed of the deepest humanity. An encounter with Robbins typically resulted in a “Chan story,” usually entertaining and a bit surreal, invariably humbling, and sometimes literally life-changing.
Like the time I met him when I was in high school. I was at an ornithological conference, standing alone at an exhibit. “You look like someone who should read this magazine,” the slender man with the crew cut said to me. He gave me his copy of American Birds, and I became a subscriber on the spot. That night I told my family I’d met a famous ornithologist and one of the nicest people you’ll ever know. More than thirty years later, I can’t say that I’ve known a greater ornithologist or nicer person. And I’m still a subscriber.
Like the time he was on a field trip I was leading while a college student. My co-leader blurted out a comically bad misidentification, and I was about to a make a public spectacle out of the man. Chan would have none of it. He defused the situation with wit and charm—and no small amount of bird biology. I was on my way to learning the lesson that being a good birder is all about how we treat other people.
Like the time I was a young adult at a regional scientific meeting. It’s the only time I ever saw Chan in a condition of distress. The emcee had neglected to acknowledge a local birder for some accomplishment, and Chan was genuinely pained by the error of omission. Chan was the embodiment of a quality that we so often read about, yet so rarely encounter in this life: compassion.
Like the last time I saw Chan in person. Although he was visibly older, his formidable intellect was undiminished. We sat down together for lunch, and I was expecting to reminisce a bit. That was not on Chan’s agenda. Instead, he focused on the future. We need more bird monitoring than ever before, he counseled; we especially need data on survivorship and mortality; and we need to apply digital technology to the bird conservation agenda, not vice versa. I was busily taking notes. Suddenly our server accidentally dropped something at our table, whereupon Chan sprang from his chair to assist. Note to self: bird monitoring…more data…digital technology…but more than any of that, be good to others.
I can think of many people who have made me a better birder and ornithologist, and Chandler S. Robbins is certainly near the top of the list. I sometimes wonder what would have become of me, had the svelte man with the crew cut not given me his copy of American Birds. Oh for sure, I would have gone on to become a birder and ornithologist. That’s not what I mean. What I mean is this: What if Chan hadn’t touched me with his spirit of inclusivity and love? I don’t know, and I suppose I don’t especially want to think about it. But I can definitively say the following: Chan did reach out to me, all those years, and my life has been richer and fuller as a result.
Please share your own “Chan stories” in the space below.