American Heroes - Chandler Robbins

He wrote the book on birds.

  • Michael Lipske
  • Dec 01, 1996
The difficult thing with serious bird-watchers isn't getting them to start looking at birds. It's getting them to do it on a strict schedule. So it's all the more surprising that Chandler S. Robbins says he never doubted, 30 years ago, that he could persuade thousands of amateur ornithologists to count birds for him with military precision one morning every year during breeding season.

An Interior Department biologist studying bird-population trends, Robbins needed several years worth of reliable, continent-wide figures for songbirds, partly to assess the threat to those creatures from the pesticide DDT. To get his numbers, he was asking recruits to stop, look and listen for birds for exactly three minutes at 50 points located every half-mile along a prescribed route. This was birding for drill sergeants, and while birders tend to be an independent lot, Robbins believed "people would think this project was important enough that they'd be willing to follow strict rules."

Boy, were they willing.

Since 1965, the annual Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) that Robbins launched from his office at the Interior Department's Patuxent Environmental Science Center in Maryland has generated mountains of invaluable data tracing subtle changes in North American bird populations, particularly on species that breed in the United States and Canada and winter in the tropics. Each year, 6,000 BBS volunteers travel more than 3,000 routes, recording every bird seen or heard during those tightly scheduled three-minute stops.

Probably no other wildlife scientist has deployed volunteers to greater effect. Among other findings, BBS data show that the number of forest-dwelling songbirds in eastern North America has been declining at a rate of at least 1 to 3 percent every year.

For developing census tools like the BBS, Robbins was awarded the National Wildlife Federation's Conservation Achievement Award in 1995. That same year he celebrated a half-century of service as a wildlife biologist for the Interior Department. "He's been a tireless scientist," says Lynn Greenwalt, former NWF vice president for conservation programs who served as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for seven of the years Robbins has worked there. "I don't think there was ever a bird count when it was too cold or too far away for him to get to."

Robbins began keeping daily records of birds in 1930, when he was a 12-year-old exploring the woods around his home in the Boston suburbs. Later, at Harvard University, he studied with Ludlow Griscom, an early advocate of identifying birds through binoculars by field marks, rather than by shooting specimens.

Robbins went to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1945, first as a biologist in the bird-banding office (he has banded more than 150,000 birds in his career). In subsequent decades, he conducted field studies on a wide range of birds.

In the early 1970s, Robbins again asked volunteers to help with fieldwork when he introduced the concept of breeding-bird atlases to the United States. Atlas projects divide a state or other region into small sections; over years, observers make trips into each section to record the presence or absence of species.

Today, at 78, Robbins continues to conduct field studies on birds, from the United States to Central America. His research indicates that breeding habitat may be more critical to bird survival than the condition of wintering habitat. And he notes that forest losses in North America, where our migrant songbirds rear their young, "are even more severe than they are in the tropics."

Over the years, Robbins has also helped point the way for fledgling bird-watchers. His field guide, Birds of North America (coauthored with Bertel Bruun and Herbert S. Zim and illustrated by artist Arthur Singer), has sold more than 5 million copies since its 1966 publication. Alas, not every reader easily connects the authoritative guidebook with the unassuming birdman who wrote it.

NWF staff member Dave Pardoe, a longtime Maryland birder, remembers being on a field trip led by Robbins years ago. One newcomer to Pardoe's local birding club, unacquainted with Robbins, was wondering aloud if the trip leader was properly qualified. "She was saying, 'Who is this guy? Can we really trust his bird identifications?'" recalls Pardoe. "So I said to her, 'See that book you have in your hand? He's the one who wrote it.'"

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