The Knoxville History Project’s Paul James and I were in the cellar of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History at the time. Surrounding us were row after row of 10-foot, pale-green metal cabinets, lockers with wooden drawers filled with museum specimens. In addition to the 17 Campephilus principalis organized in the wooden trays before us, there was also one lone male mounted on a log for display purposes. All eighteen are part of the more than 640,000 avian specimens housed at the museum, which is in the nation’s capital cattycornered to the Washington Monument.
“We receive anywhere between one and 4,000 new specimens a year,” remarked the museum’s curator of birds at the time James Dean. “Many are donated by families that discover ‘grandfather’s collection’ stored in the attic.”
Call it fortuitous. When Paul arranged the meeting, the ivory-billed woodpecker was this country’s most ethereal bird; although not officially pronounced extinct it had last been documented in the swamps of Louisiana over 60 years ago. Contemporary field guides no longer include the ivorybill, America’s largest woodpecker, for they have been written off as being eliminated long ago. In the 1800s, when folks caught a fleeting glimpse of an ivory-bill they’d gasp, saying, “Lord God, what a bird,” or simply, “Lord God Bird!” So, how could this magnificent bird, black-and-white, crow-sized bird with a loud “kient, kient-kient, kient” vocalization go undetected in our modern world?
Since we were to be in the nation’s capitol on other business, Paul had orchestrated our museum visit as a side trip. Our curiosity had been piqued by our mutual friend Nancy Tanner. The sight of several of the bird corpses left us “psychologically poleaxed,” as Paul remarked at the time. Overwhelmed, we were not mentally prepared for such a moment. We were as solemn as pallbearers.
Although the legendary bird probably never lived in the Tennessee Valley (its preferred habitat was, or is, southern old-growth swampy forest or flooded alluvial bottomland) there is a Knoxville connection. The late Dr. James Tanner, who was professor of zoology at The University of Tennessee for three decades, actually wrote the most detailed account of the bird’s biology.
In 1935, Cornell University’s Dr. Arthur Allen led a team that included Dr. Peter Kellogg and the young graduate student James Tanner on an ambitious 15,000-mile sojourn across this country to record rare birds. It was the first such expedition. The group traveled to remote locations and recorded many species for the first time, using what was called a “sounds-on-film” or “Movietone” system. Their 1,500 pounds of equipment was heavy and cumbersome by today’s standards, yet, by the trip’s end, the adventurous group had recorded more than 96 birds and had shot about 10 miles of motion picture film.
The most famous discovery made by the Cornell expedition came in April 1935. In Madison Parish, Louisiana, with the help of a local woodsman, J.J. Kuhn, the group located the long-lost ivory-billed woodpecker. Even in the 1930s, no one had seen the phantom bird in years. The Cornell expedition took photographs and filmed the ghost and moved on.
In 1937, Tanner returned to the 80,000-acre tract owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company to study the last of the ivorybills for his Cornell dissertation. Concerned because their dwindling habitat was being logged, he returned in December 1940 and again the following year to check their status. Tanner estimated that a pair of ivory-bills would need a minimum 2.5 to three square miles of habitat to insure an adequate annual food supply.
Dr. Tanner’s dissertation was first published as a book for the general public in 1942. His wife Nancy saw the elusive birds when she accompanied her husband to Louisiana on his last research trips and as far as anyone knows, she was one of the last people to have a confirmed, documented sighting.
All of this rich history swirled through our heads as Paul and I stood around the countertop in the esteemed museum’s cellar. The birds before us were mute but the questions they posed were loud and clear. How can humankind be so self-centered as to drive an animal to extinction? What gives us the right?
Needless to say, my curiosity had been stirred and that led to the three years of research that went into the writing of my second UT Press book, “Ghost Birds.” Yet, the book is not just about this single species. The ivorybill is the tentpole. The 1930s saw a major paradigm shift. Species were going extinct. The last passenger pigeon flew in 1914, the last Carolina parakeet in 1918 and the last heath hen died on Martha’s Vinyard in 1932. The question of the day among wildlife officials was: Shouldn’t we try to do something? And the sea change was set into motion.
The list of “vanishing” species pulled together included the trumpeter swan, roseate spoonbill, California condor and whooping crane. All have been saved from disappearing from this planet’s biome.
Then what about the one at the top of that long ago list, the ivory-billed woodpecker? Ever since my book was published there have been many reported sightings by people who are knowledgeable on the topic, but as of yet, no concrete evidence, no photos or videos that the world can see and say, “Oh, yes. That is a living ivorybill.”
There could be a remnant population hidden in the southern swamps. Six birds, or maybe even 12, but is there enough of a gene pool left to rebuild a population? Or, is there only one left, the last whisper of the species—a living, breathing reminder of our gluttony?
There’s a lesson in all this. As British zoologist Sir David Attenborough so fondly points out, life on Earth is tenacious; if it can find a way, it usually does.
So where does that leave us? Fifteen years after that trip to the Smithsonian that sparked this journey, how are the ghost birds? Sadly, they are still ghosts.
In remembrance of Rikki.