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Ghost Birds

Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935–1941

Stephen Lyn Bales, Foreword by Nancy Tanner

Publication Year: 2010

In 1935 naturalist James T. Tanner was a twenty-one-year-old graduate student when he saw his first ivory-billed woodpecker, one of America’s rarest birds, in a remote swamp in northern Louisiana. At the time he was part of an ambitious expedition traveling across the country to record and photograph as many avian species as possible, a trip organized by Dr. Arthur Allen, founder of the famed Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Two years later Tanner hit the road again, this time by himself and in search of only one species—that ever-elusive ivory-bill. Sponsored by Cornell and the Audubon Society, Jim Tanner’s work would result in some of the most extensive field research of the magnificent woodpecker ever conducted. Drawing on Tanner’s personal journals and written with the cooperation of his widow, Nancy, Ghost Birds recounts, in fascinating detail, the scientist’s dogged quest for the ivory-bill as he chased down leads in eight southern states. With Stephen Lyn Bales as our guide, we experience the same awe and excitement that Tanner felt when he returned to the Louisiana wetland he had visited earlier and was able to observe and document several of the “ghost birds”—including a nestling that he handled, banded, and photographed at close range. Investigating the ivory-bill was particularly urgent because it was a fast-vanishing species, the victim of indiscriminant specimen hunting and widespread logging that was destroying its habitat. As sightings became rarer and rarer in the decades following Tanner’s remarkable research, the bird was feared to have become extinct. Since 2005, reports of sightings in Arkansas and Florida made headlines and have given new hope to ornithologists and bird lovers, although extensive subsequent investigations have yet to produce definitive confirmation. Before he died in 1991, Jim Tanner himself had come to believe that the majestic woodpeckers were probably gone forever, but he remained hopeful that someone would prove him wrong. This book fully captures Tanner’s determined spirit as he tracked down what was then, as now, one of ornithology’s true Holy Grails.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

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pp. ix-x

Ghost Birds by Stephen Lyn Bales brought back many wonderful memories of my husband, Jim Tanner, and the magnificent ivory-billed woodpecker. Many of the places Jim visited in the 1930s, he and I revisited on long canoe trips years later. Several of the people Jim met in the course of his research, we kept ...

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Prologue: “Someone Needs to Write a Book . . .”

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pp. 1-4

Epiphanies happen. Ideas spark. Journeys begin. Sometimes it’s just a matter of providence. Call it kismet. But this book’s existence is based on being in the right place at the right time, both for the story and the storyteller. ...

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1. Sabbatical

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pp. 5-13

Bluster. The man had bluster. As with any good Southern lawyer in the 1930s, it was as much a part of his persona as his penchant for white linen suits and straw hats. But on this one point, Mason Spencer knew what he was talking about: ivory-billed woodpeckers were not ghost birds. No sir! Although the last ...

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2. The Journey Begins

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pp. 15-19

What did Confucius say? “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In this case, it was a step up into the cab of a dark-paneled Ford. At 9:30 am on Wednesday, February 13, the Cornell expedition left old McGraw Hall. Allen and Tanner were in the big truck, Kellogg in the smaller one. Having developed unexpected health problems, Albert Brand was not present. The financier planned ...

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3. The Swampy South

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pp. 21-31

Florida is another world, its terrain, flora, and fauna exotic. Swampy wetlands— ideal ivory-bill habitat—can be found anywhere in the state. Long before improved roads and automobiles, northern tourists came to the state for sunshine and sightseeing. During the late 1800s, railroads punched into Florida, making it a popular tourist destination. Henry Flagler constructed the Florida East ...

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4. The Ghost Bird

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pp. 33-49

Doc Allen’s road trip was inspired by the news that an ivory-billed woodpecker had been shot and killed in the Louisiana woods in 1932. And now, three years later, it was time to see if the story was true. Leaving Herb Stoddard’s plantation around 9:00 am, the Cornell group of four drove toward Selma, Alabama. In the mid-1930s a patchwork of first-class, “improved” second-class, and ...

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5. Hot Sauce and Bird City

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pp. 51-54

Stormy weather in Oklahoma forced a change in itinerary for Allen, Kellogg, and Tanner. At the invitation of businessman E. A. McIlhenny, the Cornell team made a side trip, driving south to Avery Island on Wednesday, April 17, to observe snowy egrets and a remarkable man-made sanctuary known as “Bird City.” Located nine miles from New Iberia in southern Louisiana, the island ...

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6. Days of Wind and Dust

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pp. 55-59

“When we reached western Oklahoma a dull fog gradually obscured the landscape, and as the wind whipped over the barren fields and swirled across the road, we realized that we were in the midst of a real ‘Panhandle’ dust storm,” remembered Doc Allen. “Furthermore, the storm continued without much abatement for seven of the eight days that we spent on the Davidson Ranch near ...

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7. Has Anyone Seen a Young Ivory-bill?

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pp. 61-65

Hoping to find the pair of ivory-bills they had already photographed feeding their young, Allen, Kellogg, and Tanner once again headed south to the Louisiana swamp. On Friday, May 3, the group left Oklahoma City. In the evening they encountered rain, buckets of rain—a stark contrast to the dusty, dry week on the prairie. For two days they drove through an almost continuous ...

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8. Westward Ho

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pp. 67-77

After coastal marsh, swamp, and grassland, it was time to head to the mountains, but first a return trip to the prairie was in order. This time Allen, Kellogg, and Tanner found Oklahoma noticeably different. It was wetter, too wet in most places. When they arrived back in Ardmore it was raining, as it had been when ...

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9. Swansong

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pp. 79-88

Back at Cornell, students were beginning their summer break. Nearly eleven hundred got their degrees at commencement exercises held outdoors at the eleven-year-old football stadium known simply as The Crescent. But for the traveling Cornellians, there was still work to do. Allen, Kellogg, and Tanner had ...

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10. On His Own

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pp. 89-104

If only John James Audubon, that pioneering chronicler and painter of avian life, could have lived to see how far his legacy would extend. Of French ancestry, Audubon was a true American original—equal parts ambition, élan, and genius. During his lifetime (1785–1851), he had little inkling that a renowned society dedicated to protecting birds, other wildlife, and ecosystems would one day bear his name. ...

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11. Back at Singer

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pp. 105-122

As Jim Tanner was winding his way through the southern United States looking for ivory-bills, the international news was becoming increasingly grim. The darkening political clouds on the other side of the world escaped the notice of many, if not most, ordinary Americans. In Europe, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were both in belligerent, expansionist mode, while in Asia the same was ...

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12. A Need to Move On

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pp. 123-128

With the lateness of the season—it was the last week in June—Tanner was feeling the need to move elsewhere. The past several days in the Tensas region had been more or less fruitless; even the John’s Bayou family of three had become increasingly hard to find. While he waited for his car to be repaired, Jim ...

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13. On the Road Again

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pp. 129-133

It was early December 1937. Jim Tanner repacked his Model A Ford and picked up where he left off: the Santee Bottoms. The recent sightings reported by Alexander Sprunt and others were tantalizing. With the leaves off the trees, hunting would be easier. The Palmetto State was much colder than when he ...

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14. A Second Nesting Season at Singer

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pp. 135-163

In early February 1938, Tanner was anxious to get back to Louisiana. He arrived in Atlanta and retrieved his car from storage on February 12, driving the next day to Livingston, Alabama, southwest of Birmingham and just east of Mississippi. There had been rumors of ivory-bills in the swamps of Tombigbee ...

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15. On the Road Again, Again

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pp. 165-174

Driving south, Jim Tanner left Tallulah early on Thursday, June 30. He had spent almost four months in the Singer Tract, ultimately determining that the resident population of ivory-billed woodpeckers had probably grown smaller since 1937. The birds noted on Hunter’s Bend and Bayou Despair the year before were ...

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16. From the Santee to the Sunshine State

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pp. 175-195

Late in 1938 the gathering storm in Europe continued to gain momentum. Beginning on the night of November 9, an anti-Semitic rampage exploded throughout Germany and Austria. In what many consider the beginning of the Holocaust, Nazis destroyed or damaged thousands of Jewish-owned businesses and more than two hundred synagogues. ...

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17. Finding Sonny Boy

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pp. 197-209

In mid-March 1939 much of what had once been the Czechoslovak Republic fell to Hitler’s Germany. Moving with startling efficiency and meeting little resistance, German troops marched into Prague and unfurled the swastika from the onetime castle of the Bohemian kings. Crowds of Czech citizens filled the ...

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18. I Go Pogo

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pp. 211-217

On Friday, May 26, Jim Tanner left Tallulah—and the John’s Bayou ivory-bill family—for what he believed was the last time. His hope of seeing another Campephilus principalis now lay elsewhere. And after almost three years of searching, he knew just how difficult they were to find. Having been away from ...

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19. The Fellowship Concludes

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pp. 219-223

Jim Tanner knew what he knew. The few remaining ivory-billed woodpeckers left in the wild were in trouble. In July 1939 he typed his final report to Audubon. His three-year study had come to an end, almost. ...

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20. At Home in Tennessee

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pp. 225-230

Created by an act of legislation in 1909, East Tennessee State Normal School was founded in the northeast corner of the Volunteer State. Its location had been hotly contested, as several cities vied for the honor. On December 2, the ...

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21. Our Lives Changed Forever

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pp. 231-242

As 1940 gave way to 1941, the war in Europe cast a long, dark shadow across the Atlantic. You could deny it, but inevitably, you couldn’t escape it: talk was everywhere. Along with the weather and goldfish-swallowing—a fad sweep ...

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22. Aftermath

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pp. 243-245

After watching the two female ivory-bills north of Sharkey Road, Tanner returned to Nancy in Tallulah. They quickly packed for the long drive back to Johnson City, a distance of roughly seven hundred miles. It would be forty-four years before Jim would return to the Tensas. A lot would happen in the interim. ...

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pp. 247-254

In the spring of 1942, Tanner’s draft notice for the U.S. Army and commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve arrived by mail on the same day. He chose the latter, entering the navy as a lieutenant, junior grade, a junior officer who ranks above ensign and below lieutenant. He was now twenty-eight years old. ...

Appendix: Jim Tanner’s Itinerary, 1937–1939

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pp. 255-256

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Author’s Note and Acknowledgments

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pp. 257-258

Thank you for reading this book about Jim Tanner and the ivory-billed woodpecker. I could have easily written five hundred or six hundred pages on the topic, but books have to be contained. ...


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pp. 259-262


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pp. 263-270

E-ISBN-13: 9781572337329
E-ISBN-10: 157233732X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572337176
Print-ISBN-10: 1572337176

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 15 halftones, 3 maps
Publication Year: 2010