As a fledgling birder in the 1960s, my chief source of bird information was my cherished “Golden Guide Birds of North America” by Chandler Robbins and the artist Bertel Bruun.
At the time, the Robbins guide and Roger Tory Peterson’s guide were the only two field guides available. To be sure, Peterson’s illustrations were far superior to those of Bruun, but the text, the plates and the range maps were in different parts of the Peterson guide. The Robbins guide had text, illustrations, maps and sonograms of each species on facing pages. Plus, all of the bird species in North America were covered.
These memories spring to mind because Robbins died on March 20 at the age of 98. His contributions to ornithology and birding were immense. The Golden Guide was just one of his many accomplishments.
Robbins took a job as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1945. He was based at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland until his retirement in 2005. Even in retirement, he continued to work as an emeritus biologist for another 13 years.
Early in his career, he conducted research on the effects of DNA on birds. He worked closely with Rachel Carson and his work on the deleterious impact of DDT provided scientific support for Carson’s “Silent Spring,” published in 1962.
Concerned about tracking the effect of DDT on bird populations, Robbins realized that we lacked a rigorous method to assess changes in bird populations at the regional and continental levels in North America. Robbins remedied that by designing the Breeding Bird Survey, a citizen-science project that provides a view of the changes in breeding bird populations throughout North America.
A BBS is conducted along a 24.5-mile stretch of secondary roads. Once during the breeding season, an observer starts at the designated starting point about half an hour before sunrise. The observer listens and looks for birds for three minutes, drives a half-mile to the next stop, and observes for three minutes and so on until 50 stops are sampled. The observer samples the same route each year, reporting the data to the BBS office.
Nearly 3,000 BBS routes are sampled yearly. Modest contributions from many yield a powerful tool for detecting declines or increases of our avifauna.
The BBS data is available to researchers. More than 400 papers have been published with the data. One of the most influential of these papers was a 1989 article written by Robbins and his colleagues. They showed that an alarming number of long-distance migrants saw decreasing abundance on the breeding ground in North America. Related species that did not migrate to the tropics were not showing such steep decreases. Hence, the authors inferred that deforestation and other habitat degradation in the tropical wintering areas of these long-distance migrants could explain lower densities in North America. This work provided a strong impetus to redouble efforts at habitat conservation.
Robbins visited Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean 10 times during this career. His work involved banding Laysan albatrosses that nest there. In 1956, he banded an albatross, subsequently named Wisdom. Wisdom is still alive and reproducing at the ripe age of 65! Wisdom is the oldest banded bird ever.
I got to know Robbins from ornithological meetings. I well remember chats we had after presentations I made. He was a kind, soft-spoken and generous man. He was also a highly skilled observer. His eyes and ears were amazing.
For many years, I conducted BBS routes in Maine. After conducting my 50th BBS census, I received a certificate of appreciation from the BBS Office along with a signed copy of the Robbins’ “Birds of North America.” I am very proud of the book, which sits on a shelf next to my tattered childhood copy.
Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at