The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Requiem for the Lord God Bird

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Movie footage from Louisiana, 1935 by Arthur Allen. Courtesy of Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The library also has ivory-billed woodpecker calls recorded by Allen.

The ivory-billed woodpecker is officially extinct, and it strikes a chord in Knoxville

Clinging to a maple in the bayou, Jim Tanner finally had the rare nestling in his grasp. 

He fitted it with a numbered leg band and placed the bird back in its hole high off the ground. 

But true to its seldom-seen self, the juvenile ivory-billed woodpecker squirmed free and fluttered to the base of a giant maple tree in a southern Louisiana swamp owned at the time by the Singer Sewing Machine Co.

The year was 1936, and Jim Tanner was in the midst of doctorate research at Cornell University funded by the Audubon Society as part of a push to prevent the pending extinctions of multiple bird species, including the California condor, roseate spoonbill, whooping crane and ivory-billed woodpecker. Eighty-five years later, the regal woodpecker would be the only one grounded for eternity.

In the heat and rain of mucky, gassy bayous, Tanner compiled data on the range, population, habitat and prevalence of ivory-billed woodpeckers. He camped for weeks at a time in the swamps of the birds’ original range.

On this day, his only goal was to band the bird but he rushed down the tree and picked up the agitated but uninjured woodpecker.

He also wanted photographs.

Tanner took advantage of the moment.

He placed the bird upon the shoulder of an accompanying and accommodating game warden for 14 shots from his Leica.

They were probably the first, and perhaps the last, photographs of a juvenile ivory-billed woodpecker photographed by Tanner in its natural habitat. He named the bird Sonny, and he was the only known member of the species to be banded with a number.

The regal, smart, athletic bird, which peaceably flew over its small slice of Earth for some 10,000 years, was declared extinct last month by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Twenty-two other species also qualified for removal from the Endangered Species List — in the worst possible way.

The ivory bill inhabited the swamps of the Deep South, far removed from Rocky Top, but old visages of the departed were found in Little Switzerland in South Knoxville. The work of Tanner, who would go on to complete a rich ecological research career at the University of Tennessee, has been memorialized by a talented East Tennessee science writer.

And the Southern Appalachian region has other long-gone kinships with species that vanished from the Earth a long time ago. 

Sightings and sighs

After finishing his research for the Cornell dissertation on the already then-rare woodpecker, Tanner moved South in the late 1930s to a faculty position at East Tennessee State University and then, after military service during WWII, to the UT faculty as a zoologist. He was at UT for the remainder of his 40-year academic career, and established the graduate-level department of ecology at the state’s flagship university in Knoxville.

The trees in the swamp where he had captured the photographs were reduced a couple of years later to planking for cargo boxes destined for the bloody theaters of World War II. Tanner himself shipped out with the Navy. He returned to East Tennessee after the war for the position at UT and settled down in Knoxville with his wife, Nancy, whom he’d met at ETSU.

The couple lived in Little Switzerland in South Knoxville, a still-eclectic community built by a German immigrant in the 1930s that fed off the artistic and scientific expertise and energy of its residents. 

Tanner pursued pioneering mathematical ecological modeling during his 30 years at UT. Maybe in his heart he wanted to figure out how to quantify loss and the empirical qualities of emptiness.

He also turned his attention and research, in part, to two Smoky Mountain chickadee species, and made several notable discoveries in cohabitation and cooperation between different bird populations. He played a huge part in the growth of ecological sciences at UT. 

But the vanishingly rare woodpecker was never really out of his mind. In one of his final public lectures before his death in 1991, he told an audience of Chattanooga birding enthusiasts that the ivory-billed woodpecker was likely extinct.

“I hope I’m wrong,” he said.

He was not.

Loss causes

Nobody really knows exactly why the Lord God Bird (so named because of common vocal reactions to sudden sightings of the giant, colorful birds across Southern bayous and the Ozarks and beyond) disappeared. This is true of many extinctions, because correlation does not equal causation. It was likely linked to the introduction of narrow-track railroads into previously impenetrable timber stands of south Louisiana and the Ozarks. The effect of the modern timber-extraction method was already evident in the deforestation of thousands of acres in the Smoky Mountains before the advent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Another reason, in all its tragically comic glory: Museums and universities eagerly sought specimens when it became apparent the bird was on its way out. There are hundreds of preserved specimens across the world. That’s enough to have perhaps represented a viable population of the beleaguered woodpecker had they remained alive and in the wild.

It was a big bird, with a wingspan of nearly 3 feet, and was often confused with the impressive but slightly smaller pileated woodpecker, which has a greater range, including East Tennessee, that overlaps that of the ivory bill. Researchers who tracked the ghost bird over the decades would perk up at a local mention of an ivory bill, but most often they were references to the pileated.

Deforestation likely did the bird in, but not before It had been the stuff of elusive legend for years across the Deep South. In 2006, a duo of kayaking naturalists swore they saw an ivory bill in an Arkansas swamp.

The report made national news after Tanner’s alma mater, Cornell, announced the finding. Knoxville journalist and naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales knew there was a local connection to the fabled ivory bill. He wanted to tell the doomed bird’s tale.

It was Tanner who had assiduously and arduously studied this bird for years, a Yankee in the sloppy conditions of the dirty South. He was chosen for the task primarily because of his outdoor skills and comfort with the elements.

And it was Tanner who donated the majority of his research and papers on the ivory bill to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. His dissertation was even sold en masse by the Audubon Society beginning in 1942 and reprinted by Dover in 1967. The now well-known magazine’s original cover story was on Tanner’s research into the ivory-billed woodpecker.

He had, directly and indirectly, studied the Lord God Bird for most of his life.

Tanner deserved credit for that, and the bird had a fascinating natural history with an obvious connection to East Tennessee. Bales, who provided much of the information included above in this article, wrote a book called Ghost Birds.

Resized JIm Tanner 1970sJames Tanner is seen here during field ecology work for UT in the 1970s. Courtesy Stephen Lyn Bales

The search

In 2006 over the course of his research, Bales met with Tanner’s widow, Nancy, who had lamented her husband’s research at Cornell would one day fall by the wayside, especially given the momentous modern news of the bird’s supposed rediscovery.

That was Bales’ first foray into the massive amount of research it would take to tell the story well. His quest for, among other things, Tanner’s paper journals (with legible writing), led him to Cornell, near Tanner’s hometown of Homer, New York, due north of Ithaca. Bales camped for a couple of days near the university, and perused the collection. It was huge. Cornell obliged a request to forward copies of the journal to Bales’s home in Knoxville.

“How do you save a species? The first thing you do is learn all you can about that species,” Bales said. And Tanner did just that. (Bales probably did, too, before “Ghost Birds” was published in 2010 by University of Tennessee Press).

Despite all Tanner’s efforts, over three years at the height of his dissertation project, he saw only two pairs of ivory-billed woodpeckers in the wild around the Singer Tract before it was cut for war crates.

By the 1930s, North America had already seen the confirmed extinction of the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet (which ranged in the Lowcountry and was the most colorful bird to ever inhabit the continent) and heath hen.

It’s possible to imagine an occasionally disconsolate sigh from Tanner as he awaited evidence, in a boat in a swamp, all alone and isolated in a still marginally wild land during the Great Depression, that the Lord God Bird still flew the skies.

He was tasked with formulating a recovery plan for a species he could not see or find in any consequential numbers. The recovery plan included a recommendation for the formation of a wildlife refuge that would include the original Singer Tract. This happened in the 1980s. “By then it was far too late,” Bales said.

During research on his book, Bales also drove to Louisiana to see the bald cypress-dominated forests of the tract, now managed as the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in central Louisiana west of Memphis

He wanted to see and describe what was there in the swamp, and overlay it as best he could above the deceased scientist’s memory.

But perhaps the favorite incident of his own research expedition was a meeting with Nancy Tanner at the Old Switzerland home she once shared with Jim.

She almost offhandedly pulled some negatives from a drawer. They were images of the ivory-billed nestling Jim had photographed at the Singer Tract with his Leica. They were the only photograph Tanner captured of an ivory-billed woodpecker.

Bales wrote a story about the photos for Smithsonian Magazine that appeared in September 2010.

He wasn’t surprised to learn last month the ivory bill was gone, at least according to the USFWS and its accompanying expertise. He might, however, have been a bit dispirited.

Bales has stood before a stone building at the Cincinnati Zoo that housed the last known living passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. They both died alone and with no offspring. There’s a plaque at the front of the building commemorating the birds as the last of their kind.

From a practical ecological perspective, the extinction or extirpation of native animals can lead to cascade effects that can affect an entire food chain and lead to exponentially more permanent loss of life. Those effects need to be catalogued scientifically, but is there a moral aspect to human roles in extinction?

“Damn right there is,” Bales said. “We were asked to be good stewards of this paradise.”

The consequences

The learning curve is steep. The loss of the ivory-billed woodpecker was presaged in part by the passenger-pigeon plates at cafes on Gay Street in Knoxville, according to Knoxville historian Jack Neely and Knoxville History Project development director Paul James.

The name was more a verb than a noun. It references the passage of pigeon flocks that could block the sun and were sometimes mistaken for approaching thunderstorms, James said.

Pigeon Forge, now known for asphalt and kitsch and fleeting consumer satisfaction, was named for the birds, which would flock in such numbers in the 1870s they would break branches as they descended upon one another into the trees of rural East Tennessee, according to James. 

They made for easy sport, even in the urban enclaves of places like Fort Sanders in Knoxville near the University of Tennessee. People shot them from the trees during parties, Neely said. The birds were virtually eliminated by 1900 and declared extinct in 1914, as noted by a plaque seen by sad pilgrims in Cincinnati.

One thing was especially peculiar about the loss of the passenger pigeon, Neely mused during an interview. 

Generally endangered species are considered rare from the get-go. That doesn’t account for the disappearance of the birds who once took to the sky in multitudes. 

To the city’s eventual credit, Knoxville hosted the first National Conservation Exposition in 1913 at Chilhowee Park, Neely noted. It was more focused on extractable resource conservation, such as timber, but it was a sign the region was moving on from bloody Fort Sanders passenger pigeon parties. 

Several mussels that used be among many scattered across the expansive Tennessee riverine landscape were also declared extinct by the USFWS in the September announcement. Mussels of multiple species are threatened by dams, reservoirs and pollution. The sensitive mollusks cleaned water, assisted fish reproduction and made for bountiful indigenous feasts. Those parties are on hold forever, the middens left behind with the Indian mounds.

The cost of species loss, from woodpeckers to songbirds to the delightfully colored Carolina parakeet, is incalculable. Extinction will accelerate as climate change deepens and humans expand their domain. Even insects, once considered indestructible but now known to be dependent on individual plant species, will begin to blink out, Bales predicted.

John Nolt, an environmental ethicist and University of Tennessee philosophy professor, offered a similar warning:

“These extinctions are the tiniest tip of the iceberg. The really bad news is among the species we haven’t lost yet.

“Around the world, we are causing population declines in high percentages of species in nearly every category of plants and animals,” Nolt said.

“Biologists now routinely warn that we may be precipitating Earth’s sixth mass extinction. (The fifth occurred about 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth, eliminating about 75 percent of species and all non-avian dinosaurs.)

“If we don’t reverse these population declines, that sixth mass extinction, with a comparable loss of species, will become inevitable, and we will have been the cause. The ramifications are difficult to overstate. Recovery from mass extinctions takes millions of years.”

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