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Ornithologist Chandler Robbins

Robbins, who observed avian life worldwide, tagged more

Robbins, who observed avian life worldwide, tagged more than 115,000 birds. Credit: The Washington Post / Katherine Frey

There were many days when Chandler Robbins rose before the sun to partake of the dawn chorus — the gentle coo of the mourning dove, the dulcet strain of the American robin, the fluting of the wood thrush, all heralding the arrival of morning.

Among fellow birdwatchers, Robbins was revered as a father of modern ornithology.

Robbins died Monday at 98 of congestive heart failure and other ailments, his daughter Jane Robbins said.

He was the principal author of “Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification,” a bible for millions of enthusiasts who spend their happiest hours scanning the skies for winged creatures.

Robbins documented avian life around the world, including on the Pacific island of Midway, where in 1956 he tagged a young Laysan albatross who came to be known as Wisdom. She is the oldest known wild bird, a matriarch who laid an egg as recently as December.

But for more than six decades, he worked primarily in the environs of Washington, as an ornithologist at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland. In the 1950s, he documented the damage wrought by the pesticide DDT, including its thinning effect on osprey and eagle eggshells.

An early champion of citizen science, Robbins founded the North American Breeding Bird Survey, an initiative that has grown since its founding in 1965 to involve thousands of volunteer birders in an annual effort of exacting rigor to measure the continental bird population. It is one of the two most significant avian monitoring programs of its kind. Robbins participated in the other, the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, for more than 80 years, said its director, Geoff LeBaron.

“It is not an exaggeration at all to call him one of the giants of 20th century ornithology and bird conservation,” John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, said in an interview.

He was senior editor of the “Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia” but was most celebrated for his North American guide, first published in 1966 and known colloquially as the Golden Guide for the publishing series. Unlike predecessor guides, the book included a wealth of color images as well as maps of each bird’s breeding ground and migration path and a sonogram, or visual representation of its call.

He was credited with tagging well over 115,000 birds but named his favorite as the house wren, a plain brown creature that he loved, he told the Baltimore Sun, for its “amazingly high-pitched and intricate song.”


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