James T. Tanner was born in Homer, New York in the year 1914, but lived the majority of his life in South Knoxville.
Being an active birdwatcher and a keen naturalist young Jim embarked on a course of study at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, taking classes with the world famous Dr. Arthur A. Allen, founder of the Lab.
A species that Dr. Allen was particularly interested in researching was the rare and elusive Ivory-billed woodpecker.
Although Ivory-bills were widely believed to be extinct at the time, Allen and his wife saw a pair of them in Florida in 1924. When Ivory-bills were spotted again in Louisiana eight years later in 1932, the dream was born to embark on what would become a legendary expedition traversing thousands of miles across the U.S., recording the sounds and images of both common and rare birds – including the Ivory-bill. When Allen needed a fourth member to accompany himself, artist and birder George Mitsch Sutton, and sound engineer Paul Kellogg, who else to choose but young Jim Tanner, a recent graduate.
When the team departed Cornell in February 1935, one of their destinations included a curious stretch of land owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company in Louisiana. This primitive forest and river bottomland swamp was perhaps one of the last remaining tracts of virgin forest in the United States. The Singer Tract, as it was known, essentially became the last stand of the Ivory-bill, and much of what we know today about the species stems from Tanner’s days there.
In 1937, Jim was awarded a three-year research fellowship focusing on the Ivory-bill. His directive was to study the bird and propose a conservation plan for the protection of the species. During his studies, Jim Tanner became the only known person ever to band an Ivory-bill in 1938. Perched precariously 60 feet up in a red maple, Jim seized the opportunity to band a nestling in its roost hole when its parents left in search of food. After quickly banding the young and placing it back in the roost hole, the nestling proceeded to leap out of the hole and clumsily fluttered to the ground. With the help of J.J. Kuhn, state game warden for the Singer Tract, Jim was able to take a series of unforgettable photographs of the nestling, which they affectionately named “Sonny Boy” before wrapping it in his handkerchief, stuffing it inside his shirt and gingerly returning the bird to its roost hole, 60 feet back up the tree.
At first glance of Jim’s photos of Sonny Boy, it is tempting to assume that the young bird is tame. It certainly looks comical. However, this was certainly not the case. Indeed, he was quite a feisty little character, to which Kuhn would later testify after receiving a few sharp pecks to his hand.
Although he had only witnessed Ivory-bills in Louisiana, Tanner estimated that about 12 pairs of Ivory-bills might still be living, including select areas of Florida and South Carolina. Meanwhile, commercial logging continued at a tremendous place throughout the south and the Singer Tract was no exception. Efforts by the National Audubon Society, Richard Pough (who later helped form the Nature Conservancy) Tanner and others to protect the Singer Tract as a national park were deeply challenging. Ironically, in a prophetic letter to Pough in 1946, Tanner suggested the White River area in Arkansas as ideal habitat for the Ivory-bill – an area very close to the Cache River Wildlife Refuge where the bird was believed to have been re-discovered in 2004.
The state of Tennessee also had a role to play in the survival of the Singer Tract. In 1943, Prentice Cooper, Governor of Tennessee, signed a joint petition, along with several other southeast states urging the Singer Sewing Machine Factory to sell the remaining land to form a park. Although that eventually did happen – a distant 40 years into the future in 1980, it was far too late for the Ivory-bill Woodpecker. The bird was long gone – presumed extinct.
After completing his Ph.D. in 1940, Jim Tanner accepted his first teaching position at East Tennessee State Teachers College in Johnson City, Tennessee. Two years later, Tanner’s doctoral thesis was published by the National Audubon Society entitled “The Ivory-billed Woodpecker”. A serious and scholarly book, it has long been considered the ‘bible’ on the bird.
From 1947, Jim Tanner was a professor of Zoology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. During those years Jim generously shared his passion for birds, biology and the environment, and has been fondly remembered by many of his former students.
Jim was also an active birder throughout East Tennessee, especially with the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, which for years met at the home of H.P. Ijams, who helped found the organization in 1924. H.P.’s home in Knoxville eventually became the beloved Ijams Nature Center in 1965.
After Jim’s passing in 1991, his widow, Nancy, carried the torch for the Ivory-bill. Before 2004, there were few people, if any, alive who could claim to have an authenticated sighting of an Ivory-bill. Nancy had seven sightings to her name; five in 1940 and two in 1941- and all corroborated by her husband.
During their early days of courtship, which began in Johnson City, Jim invited a small group to witness the legendary Singer Tract in all its glory. However, when he came knocking at their hotel doors one morning at 4 a.m. only one person was awake. For Nancy, it was a fateful day as it was the first time she saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Talking to Nancy, in her South Knoxville home more than 60 years later, it seemed that the phantom birds had followed her from that day.
“Jim was fascinated by this big woodpecker,” said Nancy. “But it didn’t mean a lot to me until I saw it for myself. It was truly a magnificent, regal, bird. It was amazing, unlike anything I had ever seen before.”
For Nancy, that first glimpse of an Ivory-bill has remained clear in her mind for all these years. “It is something I will never forget.” She said. “Sixty years is nothing. I remember it as if it was yesterday.”
Nancy Tanner passed away in 2013. She was an active member at St. John’s Cathedral Church. It’s therefore fitting that in the northeast corner of the Cathedral’s inner courtyard is a small pond and fountain, given by Nancy Tanner as a memorial to her husband, Jim.”
Taken from an article written by Paul James in the Tennessee Conservationist magazine in 2006.