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.

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A Leader Among Sandhill Cranes

I created this GIF from the Crane Trust’s documentary, Nebraska’s Great Sandhill Crane Migration.

There is no more thrilling sound in nature.

[Recorded by Jim Stevenson, retired Florida Park Service chief naturalist.]

One of my most memorable experiences was a spring day in Gainesville, Florida, when I noticed a crowd of people outside the building I was in; they were all gazing upward.  I hurried out to see a seething mass of sandhill cranes circling overhead, their rippling cries filling the air.  They had risen up from nearby Paynes Prairie, and were massing for their annual return to their breeding grounds on midwestern and Canadian rivers and wet prairies.

Apparently they were awaiting the emergence of the right leader.  Eventually one crane left the group heading north.  A few birds straggled after in a ragged V that aimlessly dissolved back into the group.  Soon another crane made a failed bid.  After four or five false starts, a  leader emerged that drew the wheeling flock into a solid line aiming northward, the leader who would start them on the long journey with that ancient knowledge that must be taught to each succeeding generation.