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Chandler Seymour Robbins, 1918–2017

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.

Chandler S. Robbins (1918–2017) was one of the leading ornithologists of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

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.

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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)

  • Frank Izaguirre

    I was lucky enough to get to briefly see him speak once. Afterward, I met this other pretty famous member of the bird world…

    • 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.

  • Cathy Carroll

    Very, very nice tribute to Chan Robbins. I lived in Maryland for seven years and Chan’s name was frequently and fondly evoked many times. He did attend one of the MOS conferences that I also attended and everyone was so happy to see him. I never officially met him but I knew he was a towering figure in the birding world. And, if I think of it, he did influence my love of birding in a big way. The Golden Guide was my first bird book and I drew the cardinal, robin and chickadee over and over. I mostly like your focus on
    Chan as a gentleman and a humble one at that. A great lesson for all of us.

  • Jim Lowe

    Chan was a true gentleman and gentle man. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting him many times, including a couple of visits in my office at Cornell. He will be greatly missed.

  • Alvaro Jaramillo

    I can’t believe you did not mention his binoculars! They were awesome and horrible at the same time. Ted, how do we petition that these go to the Smithsonian? Seriously!!!!

  • Floyd Hayes

    When I grew up in Maryland he lived nearby and encouraged me to become a
    wildlife biologist. I last saw him in 2009, when we celebrated his 91st
    birthday during a meeting of the Society for the Conservation and Study
    of Caribbean birds in Antigua. Here is a photo of him with his daughter.

  • Former Park Ranger

    Many of us who studied under John Trott at the Burgundy Center for Wildlife Studies in West Virginia got to meet and learn a lot from Chan Robbins. RIP!

  • jmorlan

    Had the privilege of leading a birding trip in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco when the AOU met here some decades ago. Chan was in the group as well as other luminaries and he was as you describe. But to me he revolutionized what a field guide should be. I recall browsing in a bookstore and finding a new North American field guide published by Golden Press. It had every North American bird illustrated in color with text, maps and sonograms on facing pages. It was by Robbins, Bruun, Zim and illustrated by Singer. It was revolutionary. Before that field guides usually had the plates bundled in one place, text in another and if there were maps, they were bundled in the back. The Robbins guide quickly became a standard. I taught birding classes out of it for many years. Now most field guides follow a similar format with plates facing the text. I credit Chan for his brilliant, yet simple design which lives on in successor field guides around the world.

  • Manuel Lerdau

    I’m his bird-banding grandson, having been trained by Margaret and Don Donnald, 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. I came in number 2; 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.

  • Gerald ELGERT

    . . .Were were at the North Ocean City banding station, fall of 1961 or thereabouts and it was one of those windy, rainy days when no birds were flying and we went bird watching and Chan knew exactly where the ducks were (in the lee of a hummock) and so on. Another day, during a lull, he set up a spotting scope and we watched a shorebird feed. He always had the time to be a friend and share his life with others and all of we, his friends and fellow birders, our own blogs will provide the best eulogy. Chan, you will be missed but not forgotten.

  • His book was like a bible to me in my teens, back in the 1970s when I was an avid birder. I never understood why the Peterson guide was so popular when, imo, Robbins’ was far superior. His birds looked alive and like they do in the field. I still have the same copy of his book, filled with field notes. Just yesterday on a spring walk I realized I need to rekindle my avian enthusiasm, then today I hear Robbins died. 🙁

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