The Two Faces of James T. Tanner – A Study in Selective Memory and Blindspots

In a 1936 letter to James Tanner before Tanner began his survey of possible ivorybill habitat in the southeast, Herbert Stoddard wrote, “The area where they (Ivory-billed Woodpeckers) may occur at present is simply tremendous, not restricted as many believe.” Stoddard continued, “. . . if I had the rest of my life for the purpose, I doubt I could cover adequately half the ground I now think worth investigating. When I say adequately I have in mind five days I spent looking especially for these birds with men such as Bob Allen and Alex Sprunt on an area of some ten thousand acres known to be frequented by several pairs of these birds without seeing one. Of course this was due to the element of luck, as others have gone in the same area for a few hours and seen one or two. But it indicates the time one would have to spend in these great river valleys to really be reasonably sure that the birds were absent or even extremely rare therein.” Tanner was one person, and he clearly didn’t have the time to devote to the thorough survey Stoddard suggested, but the later record suggests that he failed even more deeply to take Stoddard’s words to heart. Stoddard’s perspective leaves room for the possibility that Tanner grossly underestimated the ivorybill population in his monograph, something that might lead to very different projections about the likelihood of survival today. It also sheds additional light on the difficulties in searching for ivorybills and on what appear to be some significant blindspots in Tanner’s thinking about the species.

I recently wrote a Facebook post in which I stated Tanner had a “hard time” finding Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. A very prominent American birder and ivorybill skeptic promptly shot back asking for citations, which I provided; I wouldn’t play along with the snarky response, but the exchange gave me the impetus to write this post. To most birders, Tanner is a kind of heroic figure, a pioneer ornithologist, and the author of the only in-depth, definitive study of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird that, in Tanner’s telling (and even more so in the retelling), was a super specialist that depended on virgin forest for its survival. Tanner is also rightly seen as having played a central role in the development of modern environmentalism, fighting to save the Singer Tract itself and later helping to create Congaree National Park, one of the few remaining substantial old growth stands in the south.

Those who are more deeply steeped in ivorybill lore are likely to have a somewhat different perspective, even as they admire Tanner’s good qualities. In later years, Tanner became increasingly dogmatic about ivorybill habitat requirements and was usually harshly dismissive of  reports from others – including John Dennis in Texas and Agey and Heinzmann in Florida. (This dismissiveness began to take hold in the early 1950s.) By no later than 1985, and probably much earlier than that, Tanner had become convinced the ivorybill was extinct, a conviction that he usually leavened with the statement that he’d love to be proven wrong. Ivorybill aficionados may also raise questions about the 1930s surveys he conducted in the southeast, and the rapidity with which he dismissed almost every place he visited as being unsuitable, sometimes based on a visit lasting a day or two. Most of these visits were made outside of breeding season, at times when finding ivorybills was considerably more difficult.

Tanner may have been right to dismiss many of these areas, but the possibility that he might have missed several populations cannot be ruled out, especially in light of the letter from Stoddard, an established ornithologist with first-hand knowledge of the species. At minimum, Stoddard’s letter put Tanner on notice that ivorybills could be very difficult to find.

Were preconceived beliefs driving Tanner from 1937-1939; was he being cavalier in his dismissals; or was he simply doing his best to accomplish what Stoddard said would take a lifetime in a few weeks spread over three years? It was probably all of the above, but whatever the reason, his mindset became an even bigger problem as time went on, leading him to foment the false impression that ivorybills should be easy to find, a notion that informed the views of my interlocutor on Facebook and of many those who believe the species is extinct.

The fact is that when Tanner was in the Singer Tract, the only birds he could find on a regular basis were the “John’s Bayou Family”, the group first studied in 1935. Their nesting and roosting grounds were approximately 1 mile from Sharkey Road. From 1935-1939, the birds nested in the same general vicinity. Three of the four nests were in very close proximity to one another, and the greatest distance between any two nest sites was 3/4 of a mile. Despite this clustering, it took Tanner five days to find a nest in 1939, when he didn’t have J.J. Kuhn (who had been forced out of his job as Singer Tract Warden) to assist him. While Tanner paid respect to and credited Kuhn, the passage of time has made it increasingly clear that he downplayed the degree to which he depended on Kuhn to find ivorybills. Kuhn had been observing the birds for several years before the 1935 expedition (which also took several days to find ivorybills), and it’s reasonable to infer that the John’s Bayou family was already somewhat habituated to human presence by 1935. Certainly after ’35, they were accustomed to human activity in the immediate vicinity of their nest sites. The only other ivorybill Tanner saw was one he named Mack’s Bayou Pete, presumably a bird hatched in 1935 from a nest that Kuhn found. As with the John’s Bayou pair, this bird was found within a home range that had been roughly delineated in 1935; Tanner believed he could recognize Pete’s voice, but the bird was far more frequently heard than seen.

Edited to Add: I’ve been reminded that the 1935 Mack’s Bayou Nest failed, and that Pete more likely fledged in 1937. The fate of the adult Mack’s Bayou pair is unknown.

Tanner continued to correspond with informants in the Singer Tract until 1948 or ’49 and was advised that one or two birds remained until that time. As Tanner’s temporal distance from his experiences in the Singer Tract grew, so did the distortions in his memory. These distortions are perhaps most dramatically illustrated in an article he wrote entitled “A Forest Alive”, which was published posthumously in Birdwatch (2001), a British magazine. Prominent ivorybill skeptic Martin Collinson mentioned the article and quoted it at some length in a 2007 blog post:

Collinson concluded his post with this observation: “As others have pointed out… you can only rationalise the failure of the current searches if you don’t include the words ‘active and noisy’, ‘called frequently’ and ‘easier to see and follow’, in your dataset.”

Of course, Tanner’s observations applied only to the John’s Bayou birds studied in close proximity to a nest. More importantly, Tanner’s recollection was incomplete and inaccurate, and he corrected it in another, humbler, posthumous piece that appeared in Birdwatcher’s Digest (2000) under the title “A Postscript on Ivorybills”. Tanner began by observing that, “Like everyone else’s memory, mine forgets the annoying and unpleasant things and remembers the pleasing; the mosquitoes go but the birdsong remains. Mine is also likely to forget the important and regular events and retain the trivial and unusual.” The article makes it clear that finding even the John’s Bayou birds (which had a known territory and roosting ground) could be difficult and was even harder outside of nesting season. Tanner concluded with this reminiscence: “Hunting in other areas of the Singer Tract for ivorybills was even more difficult and discouraging. My journal is full of such comments as ‘saw old sign, lots of impenetrable vines, and no ivorybills.’ The only other ivorybill we ever found outside of the one nesting pair and their offspring was a single male that we dubbed Mack’s Bayou Pete because of the area he usually inhabited. He was hard to find and once found was soon lost . . . ”  And to reiterate, Mack’s Bayou Pete’s home range was at least something of a known quantity.

By 1985, Tanner was advising the US Fish and Wildlife Service to classify the ivorybill as extinct. He gave the following reasons, to paraphrase:

1) The reports have been unconfirmed and they often describe behavior that is characteristic of Pileateds (flushing from stumps and logs).

Tanner described this as being rare in ivorybills, which may or may not be true, but it’s certainly not unheard of. Allen and Kellogg observed a female feeding on the ground. Moreover, not all reports involved this behavior.

2) There’s so much recreational use of areas where ivorybills used to be present that people should be hearing and seeing them, and there are no extensive areas of former IBWO habitat that are remote and unvisited.

What’s omitted from this analysis is the fact that the beginning of nesting season and the end of deer season are roughly congruent, at least in Louisiana. This means that there’s actually very little human traffic in many prime nesting areas during the times when birds are most active and vocal. And of course, the John’s Bayou area was not particularly remote, although other parts of the Singer Tract were considerably more difficult to reach.

3) Ivorybills are fairly conspicuous birds that, “if present . . . are not hard to find. Furthermore, the feeding sign they made (scaling bark from extensive areas of not long dead limbs and trees) could be easily recognized as a clue to their presence.”

With regard to the feeding sign, I have to wonder what Tanner would say about the sign we’ve found that appears to match this description perfectly. With regard to being easy to find, Tanner’s field notes and his reminiscence in “A Postscript . . .” make it clear that ivorybills were extremely difficult to find, except in extraordinary circumstances – in close proximity to a nest and perhaps with a good deal of habituation to human presence.

Tanner’s story is amazing. His monograph is seminal though not gospel. The in-depth examination of his work in Stephen Lyn Bales’s Ghost Birds is essential reading. Many of his later pronouncements, however, have done a disservice and continue to sow confusion more than two decades after his death.

I’m indebted to Chuck Hunter for alerting me to the Birdwatchers Digest article some years ago, to Fredrik Bryntesson for sharing Herbert Stoddard’s 1936 letter and reminding me of Tanner’s missive to USFWS. This piece is informed by years of discussion with Frank Wiley. He also made a number of constructive suggestions about the specific content. Direct descendants excepted, Frank is undoubtedly J.J. Kuhn’s biggest admirer.


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