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Chandler S. Robbins (1918-2017)

By John R. Sauer

Chan was a visionary leader of 20th century bird conservation.  Over a career spanning >70 years, he had an enormous influence on how we identify, count, and conserve birds.  He had boundless interest and energy, conducting field work, writing books on field identification, and encouraging others to participate in the study of birds.  Chan loved being outdoors, observing and studying birds.  His office is packed with data from field studies: pesticide effects studies in the 1940s that influenced Rachel Carson, banding studies of albatross on Midway Island (Wisdom, a bird Chan banded in 1956 is still alive and laying eggs), decades of studies of birds in Mexico and Central America, influential studies of forest fragmentation in the eastern United States, and banding and distributional surveys of birds on the Patuxent Research Refuge and in his own backyard.  And Chan was a “finisher” ‒ he not only collected data, but he was a scientist who conducted analyses, tested hypotheses, and wrote papers based on the data.  Quite a few of those papers are now viewed as essential reading for conservationists.  Results from these groundbreaking studies showed us why bird populations grew or declined and formed the basis for models that guided generations of additional studies on how birds respond to their environments on both breeding and wintering grounds.

Many birders knew Chan from his field guides.  His guides emphasized the need to identify birds by sound as well as by sight.  Chan was an expert in recording bird sounds and calls, and he knew that serious bird counting required identification by ear.   Chan likely viewed these guides as part of a larger mission of developing a better-educated community of birders.  Chan’s unique ability to organize projects that used citizen scientists to gather data led to some of his greatest accomplishments. Chan was a tireless advocate of bird clubs and birding activities, especially those that also met conservation needs.   He was fearless in taking on data management and administrative tasks for major programs such as Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Atlases, Phenology data, nest record cards, Breeding Bird Censuses, and for a variety of other bird counting activities that rely on volunteers, and he had a profound effect on mobilizing the birding community as a force for conservation.   Encouraging young and indigenous scientists was important to Chan; a surprising number of prominent ornithologists in North and Central America were motivated to become professional ornithologists after spending time working with him on field projects.

Chan initiated the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) in 1966.  He saw the need for a continental-scale survey of birds that would allow us to evaluate the effects of pesticides and other environmental factors on North American birds. It is difficult to imagine that anyone other than Chan could have had the combination of logistical expertise, contacts in the birding community, and pure stamina needed to recruit thousands of volunteer observers and develop the infrastructure to carry out such a survey with very limited support.  He made it successful. The BBS has become the primary monitoring program for birds in North America, with 51 years of data providing population change information for >500 bird species.  The BBS is the go-to survey for scientific studies of birds in North America.  Characteristically, Chan used the survey to conduct groundbreaking studies of immense scientific and societal value.  Using BBS analyses, he (with coauthors) documented patterns of population change in Neotropical migrant bird species, a study that has been called “transformative” and was an important impetus for the development of Partners in Flight, an international conservation initiative for migratory birds.

Chan continued to work until very recently, coming into the office nearly daily and working on a variety of projects from albatross banding to BBS analyses, and gave his final presentation to a bird club in November 2016.  We will miss his intellect, energy, and enthusiasm, and his quiet, positive approach to life and the joy he brought to the study of birds.

Videos / Interviews:

Chan's retirement celebration on December 9, 2005: Windows Media File - Slide Show - approximately 12 minutes long.

Chandler Robbins: 60 Years of Public Service in Bird Conservation by Susan Wells, USGS Office of Communications and Outreach

BBP Interview - Sam Droege

A Life in Nature (FWS)

BBS Interview

Celebration of Life and Contributions of Chandler Robbins - June 23, 2017

Audubon's Christmas Bird Count told by Chan Robbins

Stories / Memories:

Memories that were sent

Photo of Chan Robbins completing BBS route.
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