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Remembering Chan Robbins, a Giant of Modern Ornithology

By Pat Leonard
Chandler Robbins, courtesy Barbara Dowell/USGS.
Chandler Robbins, photo courtesy Barbara Dowell/USGS.

From the Summer 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Renowned ornithologist Chandler Robbins passed away in March at the age of 98. Among his many achievements, Robbins founded the North American Breeding Bird Survey in 1966, which has recruited thousands of volunteer birders to monitor the continent’s bird populations. BBS data are still collected every year via a standardized protocol. The 50-years-and-running BBS population trends make up a core source for the State of the Birds reports published by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative.

In Robbins’ obituary in the Washington Post, Cornell Lab of Ornithology director John W. Fitzpatrick commented on the contribution of the BBS to modern ornithology: “a piece of genius . . . long before people were thinking very deeply about population trends.”

“What makes Chan so unique is that in retrospect his career has an amazing coherency, as though he had a plan to put together societal and scientific themes to achieve his goals,” said U.S. Geological Survey biologist John Sauer, who works on the BBS today. “If he did, the North American Breeding Bird Survey must have been what he was working toward.”

Robbins joined the administrative board of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 1980. He was awarded the Cornell Lab’s prestigious Arthur A. Allen Award in 1979. The award honors those who have made ornithology accessible to the general public. In that vein, Robbins was the principal author of the beloved “Golden guide,” officially titled Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification, first published in 1966 and used by millions of birders.

Robbins has a connection to the oldest banded bird in the wild. Robbins banded a Laysan Albatross on Midway Island in 1956 and called her Wisdom. He rebanded her in a return trip to Midway Island in 2002. (Read our Q&A with Robbins about Wisdom).

In the Post  obituary, the Cornell Lab’s Fitzpatrick honored Robbins for his contributions to the study and understanding of birds: “It is not an exaggeration at all to call him one of the giants of 20th-century ornithology, and bird conservation.”

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