USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
BiographyPhoto GalleryAwardsPublicationsmembershipsHome Page--Chan Robbins websitePatuxent Home

Chandler S. Robbins--Biography

In Honor of Sixty Years of
Government Service from 1945 to 2005

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Geological Survey


Photo of Chandler S. Robbins birdwatching; photo by Barbara Dowell

Chandler Robbins--A Unique Investment

(Reprinted from Fish and Wildlife News--April B May 1987, pp. 20 B 21, authored by Jon Boone, Maryland Ornithological Society, and Barbara Dowell, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Revised and updated December 2005 by Barbara Dowell, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, and Jay Sheppard, Maryland Ornithological Society.)

At the close of World War II, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a blue-chip investment. It hired Chandler Seymour Robbins as a junior biologist and put him to work in the bird-banding office of the fledgling Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland. Chan Robbins has returned high dividends ever since and became one of the most respected and influential ornithologists of this country and the world.

This December, Chan celebrates his 60th anniversary in government service and retires. This relationship has held firm by the symbiosis between a growing concern for human impacts on wildlife and Chan's genuine affection for birds. During these 60 years, Chan, through his books and articles, his innovative methods for measuring bird populations changes, his leadership in bringing together scientist and amateur, and his own meticulous field work, has embodied all the best elements of a public servant.

Chan had a lot of help along the way. He was born on July 17, 1918, in the Boston suburb of Belmont, Massachusetts. His maternal grandfather, from whom Chan received his middle name, was a world-famous botanist. His parents and two brothers encouraged Chan's interest in birds, and Belmont provided the ideal environment for a budding ornithologist. William Brewster and Ralph Hoffman visited Belmont often, and it was one of the first 25 areas to be included in Frank M. Chapman's inaugural Christmas Bird Count project in 1900. Chan first took part in the count when he was 16, four or five years after his interest in birds began to gel. By the time he graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in Physics (1940), he had already participated in 15 Christmas counts in eastern Massachusetts. (Since then, he has participated on 346 Christmas Bird Counts--a number far beyond any other participant, past or present.) He continues to promote the value of Christmas Bird Counts. While at Harvard, Chan worked with Ludlow Griscom, a pioneer in identifying birds in the field.

Armed with this impressive pedigree of acquaintances and experiences, Chan became a teacher of mathematics and science at Windsor Mountain School in Vermont. Although he had no car in those days, Chan received a number of invitations to local bird-watching expeditions, a role he plays with unsurpassed ability even to this day. What a pleasure it is to watch this lean, vigorous man, with his vintage flattop, wind his way through bog, swamp, woods, and water to show a mixed flock of people their first Indigo Bunting or Prothonotary Warbler!

When he moved to Patuxent as a junior wildlife biologist in 1945, it was for keeps. He began exploring the State of Maryland, from ocean to mountains. His wanderings uncovered much new ornithological information. One project was his thesis on "The Ecological Distribution of the Breeding Parulidae of Maryland" for his M.S. degree in 1950 from George Washington University. Along the way, he has made many friends. One was Robert Stewart, with whom he coauthored one of the finest of all state bird books, the Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia in 1958.

Another important early field trip was with the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia. On one trip, he met Eleanor Graham Cooley, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. J. S. Cooley of horticulture fame. Chan and Eleanor were married in 1948. They established a home in Laurel on a 2.5-acre site overlook­ing the Patuxent River and began a family that grew to include two sons and two daughters, all of whom are now grown and active in environmental concerns. Eleanor, unflagging in her support, encouraged Chan's dedication to birds, recognizing that he is one of those rare persons who need to combine work and play and who is dedicated to public service.

His career with the Fish and Wildlife Service included a 14-year (1961-1974) stint as Chief of the Migratory Nongame Bird Studies Section. From the banding office, he expanded his studies. He conducted population studies of doves, snipe, hawks, and songbirds to determine the effects of pesticides, particularly DDT; some studies were used in modifying hunting seasons for game birds to insure the species abundance.

The albatrosses of Midway Island also owe a significant debt to Chan Robbins. His studies (1958 B 1970) showed that Navy airplanes and the island's resident albatrosses could, with some modifications of the Navy's runways, coexist without literally impacting each other. Otherwise, there would have to have been the mass slaughter of the albatrosses. In 2002, Chan returned to Midway. Among the many he recaptured that trip was one Laysan Albatross that he had first banded in the 1950s--it was now a minimum of 51 years old and set the longevity record for the species.

One of his many "crown jewels" of accomplishments was developing a method for a national bird survey, first tested in Maryland and Delaware in 1965. Since 1968, roadside surveys have been conducted annually by volunteer observers throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico as part of the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). Approximately 500 BBS routes were done in the eastern U.S. the first year; more than 3,000 routes are currently conducted. The BBS epitomizes Chan's view of his work. "The emphasis ... is on measuring populations and change in populations of songbirds, with an eye to detecting any change in abundance before a given species decreases sharply or has to be put on the Endangered Species list."

The focus of Robbins' studies related the bird's distribution to its habitat. His famous A Guide to Field Identification of the Birds of North America, coauthored with Bertel Bruun and Herbert Zim, is a triumph of form and substance. Throughout the text and accompanied by Arthur Singer's brilliant illustrations, there is the recognition that birds are dependent upon their habitats, and that, if one knows the habitat, the birds will likely emerge. The guide featured four major innovations: coverage of all North American birds, illustrations opposite the text, sonograms for most birds, and range maps. In this sense, it is the first thorough field guide. First published in 1966 and revised in 1983, it has now sold nearly 6 million copies.

The habitat needs of birds occupied Chan's attention early in his career, beginning in 1944 when he began conducting Breeding Bird Censuses in major habitat types. The results of these censuses later played a key role in the protection of the Belt Woods Wildlands several decades later. He developed a thesis about the area of forest needed to support pairs of a number of species of thrushes, warblers, and other birds--not just in North America but on their wintering grounds in Central and South America as well. In 1981, he coauthored, with Bob Whitcomb and others, the first comprehensive paper on forest fragmentation. In 1989 Chan and others published a major monograph that documented the effects of forest fragmentation on birds nesting in eastern woodlands--the first publication to evaluate habitat fragmentation on a regional scale. Based directly on Chan's research, guidelines to protect and restore forest interior habitat were developed and incorporated into land-use plans for all Maryland counties adjoining the Chesapeake Bay and were extended statewide in the Maryland Forest Conservation Act of 1991. From 1984 through 2000, Chan, Barbara Dowell, and trained volunteer banders conducted research and ornithological training in the wintering habitats of Neotropical migrants in the Carribean, Mexico, and Central and South America. As a result, many of those local students are continuing the studies to this day.

Chan continues to maintain historic bird distribution and migration files he began in 1943. He designed and tested methods for conducting a breeding bird atlas of Maryland in the 1970s and those methods are being used in the current Maryland atlas project, as well as by other atlas projects around the country. He also explored the influence of weather on bird abundance and migration patterns. Always concerned about the impact of land-use activities on birds and their habitat, Chan has recently worked to increase awareness of the large hazard that industrial wind turbines pose to migratory birds if sited inappropriately--such as on Appalachian ridge tops.

His professional activities have taken him to all 50 states, Canada, Mexico, Central and South Americas, Western Europe, former Soviet Union, North and South Pacific, East Africa, and the Indian Ocean. He was a member of the delegation that drafted the USA/USSR Migratory Bird Treaty.

Chan has photographed or recorded the songs and sounds of many hundreds of bird species. He understands there is a strong need for bird watchers to use their ears, as well as their eyes to identify birds. Chan has used many of his thousands of photographs to illustrate his talks to groups such as the Maryland Ornithological Society, which he joined in 1945. He was a technical editor of North American Birds (1952-1989) and remains, since 1948, editor of the quarterly journal, Maryland Birdlife. He prepared a well-honed Field List of the Birds of Maryland. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Arthur A. Allen Award, the Audubon Naturalist Society's Paul Bartsch Award, and the Fish and Wildlife Service's Meritorious Service Award. In 1995 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Sciences by the University of Maryland for his decades of research and conservation efforts in the field of ornithology.

This gentle "census taker" casts a long shadow. To those who know him, the name, Chan, repre­sents birding past, present, and the future for those that follow in his ever present shadow. To those who understand his innovative techniques, Chan also has come to mean a much more promising future for both birds and people. Chan and Eleanor believe in investing in the future through the conservation of our natural resources. Early on, they began by donating the proceeds of the Birds of North America field guides to conservation efforts to benefit future generations. They have set up numerous trusts to fund college scholarships and conservation organizations and have purchased and donated important habitats in need of protection.

If anyone really thinks that Chan is now retiring, just try to follow him on all his favorite counts and surveys over the coming years! He is just shifting gears but still headed in the same direction.

"Blue-chip all the way."

Some other Chandler S. Robbins' Facts and Figures

Memberships--National & International : Am. Meteorological Soc. (1956), Am. Ornithol. Union (1944, Elective Member 1949, Fellow 1970), Am. Water Resources Assoc. (1993), Assoc. of Field Ornithol. (1945), British Trust for Ornithology (1968), Colonial Waterbird Soc. (1977) , Cooper Ornithol. Soc. (1954), Mexican Ornithol. Soc. (1992), Instit. for Bird Populations (1993), Internatl. Ornithol. Congress (1962), Neotropical Ornithol. Soc. (1991), Soc. of Caribbean Ornithol. (1988), Soc. for Conserv. Biology (1999), The Wildlife Soc. (1947), and Wilson Ornithol. Soc. (1941)

--Regional and State Societies: Delmarva Ornithol. Soc. (1964), Eastern Bird Banding Assoc. (1941), Georgia Ornithol. Soc. (1961), Inland Bird Banding Assoc. (1945), Kansas Ornithol. Soc. (1972), Louisiana Ornithol. Soc. (1953), Maryland Natural History Soc. (1948), Maryland Ornithol. Soc. (1945), Michigan Bird Banders Assoc. (about 1960), Oklahoma Ornithol. Soc. (1968), Ontario Bird Banding Assoc. (1965), Tennessee Ornithol. Soc. (1950), Texas Ornithol. Soc. (1953), Virginia Soc. of Ornithol. (1963), Western Bird Banding Assoc. (1962), and Wisconsin Soc. for Ornithol. (1942).

Bibliography--The list of papers, books, maps and articles authored by Chan since 1937 exceeds 650. His Birds of North America guide in all its printings and editions totals almost 6 million copies.

Bird Bandings--Chan, with the assistance of helpers at some banding stations, has banded more than 190,000 birds of more than 450 species in the U.S., Canada, Central America, and the Carribean. More than 33,400 encounters of those banded birds have been logged into the Bird Banding Laboratory's (BBL) master files through 2004. One Laysan Albatross that Chan banded in 1958 on Midway Island with a chick (meaning minimum 7 years old at that time) was recaptured with a chick by Chan on his visit in 2002; this 51-year old albatross is the oldest for its species and oldest bird in the BBL files. For further information and to view this and other material about Chan, visit the following web site:

U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, 
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA
Home Page URL:
Contact: Webmaster
Last Modification: 12/15/2005
USGS Privacy Statement