The Long Goodbye
A new book traces one ornithologist’s quixotic efforts to study and preserve the ivory-billed woodpecker.
By Stephen Lyn Bales
The University of Tennessee Press, 270 pages, $29.95
They called and acted nervously when I approached,” James Tanner wrote of the ivory-billed woodpecker in his 400-plus-page travel journal in 1937. “Male whammed on stub two inches long, then flew a short distance, whammed and bammed. Female worked on a dead hackberry stub 25 feet high, 18 inches in diameter, mostly skinned and showing many [beetle] engraver burrows.”
Tanner’s journal is the chief source, the very substance, of the saddest book I have ever read about birds. Ghost Birds resembles the recollections and musings of a man at the bedside of a friend struggling against a fatal illness. Indeed, we witness in Stephen Lyn Bales’s book what may have been our final significant encounters with the largest North American woodpecker, so impressive that lucky observers blurted “Lord God!” on seeing it in the forest. Fascinating in its detail of the day-to-day existence of the last known group of these magnificent birds, the book also records a dogged scientist’s frustrating search through southern swamps for other ivory-bills while logging companies slashed the forests around them into heaps of rubble.
The broad outlines of the ivory-bill’s demise are familiar to most readers interested in birds. Now Bales, a naturalist at the Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, and a longtime friend of Tanner’s widow, Nancy, focuses both on the man who knew the species better than anyone else and on Louisiana’s Singer Tract, the 82,000-acre forested stage where the drama played out. In doing so, he sets Tanner for the first time firmly in the pantheon of America’s leading ornithologists.
National Audubon president John Baker conceived a plan in 1936 to document the threats to the ivory-bill’s existence and find ways to fend off its extinction. Tanner, then a 22-year-old grad student, was the logical man to carry it out. A year before, he had been part of a team from Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology that went to the Singer Tract to photograph, film, and record the calls of a remnant group of those woodpeckers. He proved himself a tireless, resourceful observer working under primitive conditions.
Beginning in January 1937, Tanner would spend more than 21 months over three years, covering 45,000 miles from South Carolina through eastern Texas by train and in his beat-up 1931 Model A Ford, and uncounted miles by foot, boat, and horseback. He climbed trees, waded through muddy swamps, baked his own bread, and put to work his considerable skills as an auto mechanic. He sometimes slept in an old tennis net he slung between two trees. Yet he had luck locating ivory-bills only in the Singer Tract.
Tanner’s journal, as well as his reports to Audubon, recorded his travels and observations. “The ivory-bill has frequently been described as a dweller of dark and gloomy swamps, has been associated with muck and murk, has been called a melancholy bird,” he noted. “But it is not that at all—the ivory-bill is a dweller of the tree tops and sunshine; it lives in the sun . . . in surroundings as bright as its own plumage.”
Perhaps the most luminous moments of Tanner’s odyssey occurred when he had the unique opportunity to observe, band, and photograph one young bird hatched and reared by the adult pair he followed regularly in 1937 and 1938. No one else has ever banded a young ivory-bill or described one in such detail. The sprightly, banded youngster he photographed clinging to the cap of his guide, J.J. Kuhn, in the Singer Tract in 1938 and which he later named Sonny Boy, has become a part of ivory-bill lore.
But with the onset of World War II, Tanner’s observations on the biology and behavior of the ivory-bills and his suggestions for the preservation of key forests were of little help to the species. Wherever he went in search of them, he found the chainsaws there before him. The sewing machine manufacturer that had owned the Singer Tract eventually sold logging rights to a timber company that, by 1941, was moving into high gear to provide raw material for the nation’s defense. Just after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Tanner made his last visit to the beleaguered handful of birds he had studied and treasured. He contacted an executive of the lumber company at work in the forest to point out some of the big trees still crucial to the woodpeckers’ survival and that could easily be left standing. “I showed him the kind of trees that ivory-bills fed on, and some old signs [of their presence],” Tanner reported. “He was interested and cooperative, but his most pointed comment was, ‘They ought to learn to feed on something different.’ ”
For a time there was a faint hope of slowing the forest carnage. Most of Louisiana’s woodcutters were off at war, leaving hardly anyone to work in the woods. The lumber company considered National Audubon’s offer to buy vital areas of the Singer Tract. Then the cruelest blow: The government shipped German prisoners, formerly housed in England, to the Louisiana backwoods and put them to work cutting trees for boxes in which to ship tea to British soldiers.
To the end of his life in 1991, Jim Tanner hoped that his birds were still out there somewhere. But his experiences in the Singer Tract told him they were gone, existing only as museum specimens that gaze blankly out at us from their niche in extinction.