For the Birds Radio Program: Chandler Robbins
Of all the birding and ornithology figures Laura has ever known, her greatest hero, as an ornithologist, a conservationist, and a human being, is Chandler Robbins. He died on March 20.
Laura’s longer remembrance of him is on her blog.
When I started birding, the field guide I depended on—the only one I brought into the field as I figured out the first 400 or so birds on my lifelist, was the Golden Guide, written by Chandler Robbins. I met him soon after learning his part in creating the Golden Guide. I was teaching at St. James Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, when the American Ornithologists’ Union met there in 1978. I helped with a few things and led a field trip to my favorite local birding spot—Picnic Point. I’d been leading some field trips for Madison Audubon by then, but was scared out of my boots leading professional ornithologists on a bird walk, and the meeting was held in mid-August, after birds have pretty much stopped singing for the season but before much migration has kicked in.
We ended up with about as good a list as was possible, but I was so intimidated by the professional ornithologists that my hands holding binoculars were visibly shaking. Fortunately, right from the start, one older, quiet-spoken man with a crew cut asked me some leading questions, and kept that up as we walked along, helping me focus my commentary throughout the field trip, making it a wonderful success. It wasn’t until the group was breaking up that I learned that he was Chandler Robbins.
I had a free ticket to the banquet because I’d helped with so many events, but going to any social event with strangers was hard for me. When I walked into the huge banquet hall, the tables near the front were all filled, but I was headed for a dark corner in back where I could sit by myself during the meal and program and then quietly disappear into the night. I’d only taken a few steps in before Chandler Robbins walked straight up to me and asked if I already had a table—he’d saved a seat for me! On the short walk there, several ornithologists and graduate students stopped us to tell him how much they loved his work and to ply him with questions or ask him to review a paper or book for them.
I still wonder what it was about that shy 26-year-old teacher, improbably still wearing braces on her teeth, that made Chandler Robbins single me out as a dining companion when he had so very many better choices. It was one of the most thrilling evenings of my life—he was so fun to talk to, and so interested in my work teaching fourth, fifth, and sixth grade science and music. But looking back, that lovely dinner was wasted on a woman who was cosmically ignorant of this man’s many accomplishments, especially because he was too modest to call my attention to some of the most amazing things about him.
Yesterday I learned that the man whose book guided me every step of the way through my first years of birding, the man whose conservation work ensured that there would still be a wealth of birds for me to enjoy today, the man who has been my North Star since I first met him almost 40 years ago and who I most deeply associate with bird song because he dedicated his life to ensuring that springs would never be silent—this beloved man had passed away on the first day of spring.
The death of Chandler Robbins hit me hard. In coming days, I will be producing a series of programs about him and his fascinating life, including his time as a conscientious objector in WWII, and his pesticide research in the 1950s, when his technical editor was Rachel Carson. He led a rich life that richly deserves to be told.