Chandlers were Audubon wardens

OKEECHOBEE — Conservation has always been important to the Chandler family, with the first and possibly most famous story on record being that of Marvin Chandler, the first Okeechobee warden for the Audubon Society. According to Fl.audubon.org, the job of Audubon warden was created in Florida in 1901 because, although laws had been passed to protect certain birds from being hunted, Florida did not appoint anyone to enforce those laws. The website goes on to say the job of warden was a very dangerous one, as two of the four wardens originally appointed in the State of Florida were killed in the line of duty.

Marvin Chandler, described as a tall, thin, quiet man, was appointed Okeechobee warden in 1936, and his official job was to enforce wildlife laws. He was deputized by the government, wore a badge, carried a gun and his salary was paid by the Audubon Society. In his book “The Audubon Ark,” Frank Graham Jr. explains Marvin Chandler was born in Basinger and returned to his home territory after a stint in the U.S. Army during World War I. He spent his time in the service chasing down deserters and draft-dodgers and was offered a chance to become a Texas Ranger but turned it down.

Mr. Graham said Marvin’s territory included all of Lake Okeechobee and thousands of acres on the Kissimmee Prairie. Some of his territory was so rough, he had to patrol on horseback.

Marvin’s most difficult task was keeping the eggs of endangered birds safe from collectors.

Mr. Graham said once Marvin found spikes driven into just about every cabbage palm where caracaras nested on the Kissimmee Prairie. These spikes were used by collectors to mark the trees where nests could be found. He figured out a way to stop this by climbing the trees and stamping every egg with “Property of the National Audubon Society,” which seemed to work out very well as no one wanted an egg if it had markings on the shell. Marvin also dealt with poachers and plume hunters. At that time, women loved to wear the plumes of birds on their hats, and the birds were hunted in order to meet this demand.

Wood storks are seen nesting here. Courtesy of SFWMD.

Florida Audubon’s website tells the tale of Marvin snubbing First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt when she came to visit Lake Okeechobee wearing a hat sporting the plume of a snowy egret. According to Marvin’s daughter Patricia, this caused an argument between Marvin and his boss, ending in Marvin breaking his boss’s camera!

Marvin’s nephews Glenn and Rod Chandler also served as Audubon wardens. Glenn, called Ghandy by almost everyone who knew him, took over after his uncle Marvin passed away in 1945, and wore the same badge. He, too, carried a gun. According to Rod’s son Noel Chandler, after Ghandy retired, he lived in a cabin out on the Prairie. Glenn was famous for arresting the director of Eastern Airlines, who also managed the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Audubon website says Glenn arrested him because he kept bringing his baseball players over after spring training to shoot sandhill cranes. After repeated warnings, Glenn arrested him.

Taking over after his brother’s retirement in 1965, things were a little different in Rod’s time as warden. He never wore a badge or carried a gun. Mr. Graham explained Rod credited his success to the way he related to the people in the community. They were his friends, and he tried to work with them. He was quoted as saying, “I guess it takes one outlaw to know another one.” Mr. Graham said Rod’s biggest challenge did not come from the people in the area, but from outside forces. When the Kissimmee River was channelized by the U.S. Corp of Engineers, Rod called it a “sewer ditch.” In 1980, after much urging by Rod, the Audubon Society purchased land on the Prairie to make a sanctuary, and between that land and the land he watched over by agreement with local ranchers, Rod was patrolling approximately 60,000 acres. Rod spent a lot of time studying birds, and was very interested in the snail kites because he noticed their nests were not very sturdy and often fell over, breaking eggs and killing the baby birds. His son Noel explained Rod thought about how he could solve the problem of these nests falling over, and he designed a basket to go underneath which would make them sturdier. All the experts told him it would never work, though, because once you touch a wild animal or its nest, it would never come back to it. “He had the last laugh, though,” Noel laughed, “because he was right. Those nests worked.”

Two new sanctuaries were opened in 1982 and 1984, and Rod’s son Noel became a warden, serving for 13 years, “until the sanctuary he was protecting was sold out from under him,” he explained.

If not for the Chandler family, it’s hard to even imagine what this area would be now. Would there even be snail kites? Would there be a Prairie? How many birds and animals would be extinct? Thankfully, we will never know.

The Everglades Snail Kite feeds on Apple Snails. Changes in water levels can affect the birds’ food supply. Photo courtesy Florida Audubon Society.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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