Requiem for the Lord God Bird


We’re bringing you this story about the ivory billed woodpecker today through our friendship with Thomas Fraser at Hellbender Press, the coolest environmental journal in the East Tennessee Valley. Enjoy the article, and explore their website when you’re finished — you won’t regret it!

Requiem for the Lord God Bird

By Thomas Fraser 

After finishing his research for the Cornell dissertation on the already 

rare ivory billed woodpecker, James 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.

He eventually 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.

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.”

This story continues in Hellbender Press, the best darn Appalachia environmental journal around: