Chandler Robbins, A Legend Who Persuaded a Generation to Love Birds, Wild Places and Science, Has Passed

By Bo Gardiner
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A well-loved copy of Robbins’ Birds of North America, 1966 (aka “Golden Guide”)

Thousands, maybe millions, this week will recall this gorgeous book with profound affection and tears in their eyes.  I can attest, as I seem to be having a bit of trouble myself writing this.

Chandler S. Robbins, co-author of the classic Birds of North America (1966), more widely known to birders simply as “The Golden Guide,” died yesterday, March 20 — a legend of ornithology and citizen science.

Let me tell you about this man and his work, even if you know nothing of birds.

For me, the tears are less about sadness -– 99 years is a marvelous run — than of gratitude for the incredible and lasting joy this book brought into my life.

The Golden Guide was revolutionary and changed field guides forever, as the first birding field guide to include:

  • All North American birds.
  • Range maps showing breeding, wintering and migration distribution.
  • Sonograms (visual depictions of bird song).
  • Text opposite the illustrations, instead of grouped separately.

Trust me on those last three -– it’s impossible to imagine trying to learn about birds today without these:

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The 1966 Birds of North America (the “Golden Guide”) was a revolution.

Like countless other young children, I stared longingly at the Golden Guide’s cover, at those glorious three buntings in colors that didn’t seem possible in the natural world, and determined to see all three for myself in the wild. I was crazy for fairy tales, and these were every bit as enchanting.  Could such magical creatures possibly dwell in my mundane world?  The maps said they did!  I was stunned!

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The utterly ridiculous Painted Bunting.  In a southern scrub not so terribly far from you. Every few years one even appears like a dream come true here in Virginia.

So I did.  See them all in the wild, that is.  And so can you.  And so you should.  Because once you do, your world becomes more beautiful and your life richer.  (Here’s how to track the suckers down: Lazuli Bunting, Indigo Bunting, Painted (gasp!) Bunting.  They’re not among the most difficult species to find.)

I never met Chan, but I don’t think he’d mind if I join those who did know him in calling him that. Chan’s early work and data on the effects of DDT on birds helped inspire Rachel Carson to write her game-changing 1962 book, Silent Spring.

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Ocean City, Maryland, bird banding station, 1962, banding a Cerulean Warbler, azure and vulnerable jewel of mature forest 

In the same year Chan published the Golden Guide, 1966, he established with colleagues in the U.S. and Canada one of the most important citizen science tools we have today, the North American Breeding Bird Survey.  The BBS is an annual largely volunteer bird census that gives us a long-term dataset on species distribution and population.  There’s no other way to have early warning of population trends that could signal potentially harmful breeding habitat changes or other threats that might cause irreversible species collapse. Today, volunteers monitor thousands of tracts every year; the results are used by countless scientists and land managers.  (Don’t be shy, pitch in this year!  Even if you can’t recognize bird calls yet, you can be the recorder or driver.)

Below depicts the incredibly valuable data maps and trends we can view now thanks to Chandler S. Robbins.  This is the Loggerhead Shrike, a fascinating predatory hawk-like songbird that rips off lil’ sparrow heads and spikes them on thorns like a macabre scene from Game of Thrones, and it’s in deeply serious trouble, most likely due to pesticides.

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Breeding Bird Survey data for the Loggerhead Shrike

When BBS data revealed disturbing declines in forest-dwelling birds such as many of our spectacular wood warblers, Chandler co-authored in 1981 the monumentally important paper whose title every ecology student now knows, “Effects of forest fragmentation on avifauna of the eastern deciduous forest.”  The paper led to a massive national effort to rush to identify and prioritize large, still-unbroken tracts of forest while there was still time.  Recently, in 2012, Chan said it was his work in forest fragmentation of which he was most proud.

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Chan retired from Maryland’s USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in 2005, after sixty (!) years of service as an avian biologist there.  His legacy is so remarkable that the USGS put up then a web page wholly dedicated to him, including a slideshow with many touching photographs such as these:

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Midway Island, 1966, studying the incredibly rare Short-Tailed Albatross.  
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Nihoa Island, 1967, studying Pacific seabirds.  I hope it’s not disrespectful to note this pic is kind of hot.
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Teaching Guatemalan students to band and study birds, early 1990s
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Teaching Ornithology 101 to Guatemalan students, 1995

Just a few weeks ago, a chick hatched in the nest of a Laysan albatross on Midway Island that Chan banded.

In NINETEEN FIFTY-SIX.

Chan rediscovered it 46 years later.  The bird, now named “Wisdom,” is the oldest known breeding bird in the wild in the world at at least 66 friggin’ years old.

 

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“Wisdom”, a Laysan albatross on Midway Island, is at 66 the oldest known breeding bird in the wild in the world.  She was banded by Chandler Robbins in 1956, rediscovered by him 46 years later, and in February had this new little one.

In her lifetime Wisdom has likely flown over three million miles. She spends 90% of her life in the air crisscrossing the North Pacific from the Hawaiian Islands to the Bering Sea. When she’s not soaring over vast expanses of open ocean or resting on the waves hunting for squid, she returns nearly every year to the same nesting spot on Midway Atoll to meet up with her mate Akeakamai.

Chan’s wife Eleanor Robbins, who died in 2008, was a serious birder as well, who for forty years wrote a much-loved and data-filled weekly birding column.

The Patuxent wildlife station ended its slide show of Chan’s vast scholarly achievements with this image, and so shall I.

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Winter Spring migration is coming.

 

[A version of this was published at Daily Kos.]

 

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