Just over a year ago, I quoted at length from a 1949 letter to Tanner from Arthur MacMurray (a former student). I’m reposting that transcript below and have some additional commentary. Eckelberry’s famous “last” John’s Bayou sighting in April 1944 has become a legend, even though Peterson, writing in 1948, had the lone female remaining at John’s Bayou until December 1946.
John’s Bayou aside, the MacMurray letter suggests that at least three ivorybills remained in the vicinity of the Singer Tract until the end of 1948, although not in the areas that Tanner studied. I read these reports as involving at least three birds because Willett mentioned a pair, whereas Williams and McCallip involve a lone bird. The Williams and Willett reports seem highly credible to me, given that Willett undoubtedly knew ivorybills and MacMurray seems to have trusted Williams’s ability to recognize the species.
I have tried to identify the locations involved. Little Fork Road still exists, south of Little Fork Bayou. It is west of the Tensas, about 10 miles northwest of John’s Bayou. North Lake #1 presented a challenge. The only North Lake I could find in the area is the North Lake Marydale Oilfield, which is in Tensas Parish, about 18 miles south-southwest of John’s Bayou and 20 miles south of Little Fork Road, just outside what is now Buckhorn Wildlife Management Area. While it’s possible that MacMurray (via Willett) was referring to a designation on a lumber company map (H. Baldwin, pers. comm.), it seems reasonable to infer that this is the North Lake referenced in the letter.
It may be worth noting that as of 1943, a number of relatively small parcels in the vicinity of Little Fork Bayou, including the McCallip property, were not owned by Chicago Mill or Singer. Perhaps these parcels provided at least a temporary refuge, MacMurray’s reference to all he saw having been cut over notwithstanding. Perhaps this hints at how the remaining Singer Tract birds were dispersing or surviving in degraded habitat. Beyond that, there may be little to infer, except that while Eckelberry and the Fought boys’ “last sighting” was valid and makes for a moving story, its lastness is folklore.
The Singer Tract has been cleaned of all its commercial timber as far as I could gather. No Ivorybills have been seen at John’s Bayou for at least three years, according to a resident who has lived adjacent to it for twenty-two years. ( . . . but he is on the lookout for them and remembers you.) John’s Bayou has a lumber railway passing thru it and passing all the way north to some point due west of Tallullah. The Ivorybills apparently left John’s Bayou soon after the large gum tree which had been their nest tree for several years was lumbered.
Mr. Gus Willett is still the local game warden. I phoned him. He expresses his best regards to you. He says that only one pair of Ivorybills are known to be in the region (seen in late November), having moved to North Lake #1. He says that whatever Ivorybills are left are apparently wandering over much larger areas than formerly. He says that all the old stands of gum tree are being lumbered now or very soon, so he thinks the prognosis for Ivorybills is dark and apt to be very brief. He doesn’t know whether or not Ivorybills have been found elsewhere in Louisiana or elsewhere in Florida in the past few years.
A friend of the gentleman who resides adjacent to John’s Bayou reported that he saw what he thought was an Ivorybill on E.C. McCallip’s property on the Little Fork Road 6 miles south of Waverly on December 17th of 1948. So Dot and I spent the night in Tallullah and visited McCallip’s place (minus boots – It was very muddy) All the land we saw looked cut over. There were lots of woodpeckers. Saw 5 Pileateds but none of their cousins. I questioned Mr. Ward Williams (address: Del Hi, Route 1, Box 184-A, Madison Parish, Louisiana) who recognizes Ivorybills and distinguishes between them and the “native” (pileated) peckerwoods. He claims to have seen an Ivory Bill there in November. He regards them as nesting residents and thinks he can find a nest of them there without very much hunting. I left my address, and he intends to write next time he sees a bird. He and his visitors were aware of Ivorybills having been at the Sharkey place adjacent (or in) to Singer Tract.
Dot and I found it expedient under the murky circumstances to proceed on to New Orleans for Xmas day.
. . .
Wish I had more optimistic new regarding the what kind of future we dealt the big-woods peckerwood.
I’ve just finished reading Tanner’s dissertation and have gained some new insights into topics that have been discussed in a number of earlier posts.
Conventional wisdom, following Tanner, holds that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s decline and possible extinction were caused by habitat loss, specifically the logging of old growth forests during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Birdlife International’s fact sheet on the species suggests “that large contiguous tracts of mature woodland would be required to support a viable population”, referencing Jackson 2002. Snyder et al. have proposed an alternative hypothesis that “human depredation was the primary factor.” (p.9).
Tanner’s model depends on the idea that food supply was the limiting factor on ivorybill populations, because the species is highly specialized, and that old growth conditions were optimal or essential. While Tanner was aware that ivorybills bred successfully in an area that was predominantly second growth, at Mack’s Bayou, he glossed over this fact in the monograph, and became more dogmatic about old growth as a requirement in later years.
Snyder and some others have contended that the ivorybill is a generalist. According to Snyder, “the data available on diet and foraging methods simply do not provide compelling evidence for strong feeding specialization.” Snyder goes on to suggest that “[i]ts apparent skill in exploiting recently dead timber, coupled with its ability to feed in a variety of other ways, may even have given it some significant foraging advantages over the pileated woodpecker, a species apparently much less capable of bark stripping. Indeed, the pileated woodpecker, like other Dryocopus woodpeckers, may well be more of a food specialist than any of the Campephilus woodpeckers.” (p. 37).
As I see it, there are elements of truth in both models, but neither is complete. In addition, I think that each model relies on at least one flawed premise.
The old growth/virgin forest component of Tanner’s model fails to account for the facts that the Singer Tract population was dwindling even before logging began in earnest and that birds appear to have remained in the Tract until well after it had been extensively logged. Tanner suggested another possibility, “perhaps the greatest factor reducing the rate of ivorybill reproduction is the failure of some birds to nest. One reason for their not breeding is immaturity, for it is probable that ivorybills do not nest until they are two years old. Another possibility is that the quantity of food available to the woodpeckers may determine whether they will nest or not.” (p. 83).
Tanner struggled to account for the fact that the ivorybill population at Singer was dwindling by the mid-1930s, even though overall habitat quality had, if anything, improved relative to what it had been a few decades earlier. He attributed the higher relative abundance in previous years to tree mortality due to fires that took place in 1917 and 1924. Tanner also recognized the probable importance of fire in the pre-contact era, although he seems to have been unaware of the ways pre-contact Native Americans used fire, both for agriculture and habitat management. (The impacts of Native American fire use were almost surely different from what occurred in the 20th century Singer Tract).
Neither Tanner (whose study predates the emergence of the discipline) nor Snyder, take environmental history sufficiently into account. There had been major ‘changes in the land’ long before large scale logging began in the southeast and before the reports of local abundance on which Snyder relies. These changes include: the post-contact collapse of Native American civilizations, the introduction of European plant and animal species, the clearing of log jams on major and secondary North American rivers, habitat fragmentation due to the plantation economy, and the near extirpation of the beaver.
All of these elements likely contributed to a major decline in ivorybill populations. Ivory-billed woodpeckers likely concentrated locally in response to major disturbances, regardless of whether forests were old-growth or advanced second-growth, and this type of specialization caused birds to congregate, making it easier for collectors to kill them in large numbers in short periods of time. Snyder likely misinterpreted this collection of large numbers of Ivory-bills in short periods of time as reflecting a greater regional abundance. In contrast, and more consistent with Tanner, this ecological response to disturbed areas led, in some places, to the collectors extirpating regional populations.
In the latter part of the 19th century, hunting probably sped the collapse of the remaining population, but Snyder’s claim that available data on diet and foraging methods do not provide compelling evidence of specialization fails to account for the anatomical and other evidence that suggests otherwise. It also fails to account for the Pileated Woodpecker’s far more extensive range and ability to thrive in a wider variety of habitats, including badly fragmented and degraded ones. I made some of the case for specialization in a series of recent posts, but there’s more to add, especially with regard to ants.
In one of those posts, I hypothesized that the inability to exploit ants as a food resource was a key component, perhaps the primary component, in explaining the decline of the ivorybill. A commenter asked whether there’s evidence to support the idea that ivorybills and other Campephilus woodpeckers don’t feed on ants and also whether there’s evidence to support the idea that Campephilus woodpeckers don’t regurgitate.
Adult Campephilus woodpeckers rarely feed on ants but do not feed them to their young. They make frequent trips to the nest with food items stored in the bill or at the back of the bill. (M. Lammertink, pers. comm.) Dryocopus woodpeckers and those in closely related genera (the “tribe” Malarpicini) feed their young by regurgitating, while other woodpeckers do not. (Manegold and Topfer, 2012). I think the capacity of Pileated Woodpeckers to consume ants in large quantities and to feed them to their young is a significant distinguishing factor and that Tanner was correct in suggesting that food supply was a major limiting factor on Ivory-billed Woodpecker populations.
Ants comprise up to 33% of the world’s terrestrial animal biomass. In Finland, they comprise as much as 10%. In tropical forests, the percentage is much higher, exceeding vertebrate biomass by 400%. Tanner’s comparative analysis of available ivorybill and pileated food did not include ants, so Tanner’s comparative estimate of available insect prey – suggesting that pileateds in the Singer Tract had access to approximately four times what ivorybills did – was in fact extremely low.
Tanner’s dissertation concludes with a discussion of Audubon’s ivorybill dissection, something that was omitted from the monograph. While I had a passing familiarity with the Audubon material, I had not looked at it carefully. Nor had I compared his ivorybill and pileated dissections.
Tanner wrote: “The proventriculus is both muscular and glandular. Audubon’s drawings and text indicate that the proventriculus of a Pileated is much larger in proportion to the stomach than is the case in the Ivory-bill.” Audubon described the ivorybill proventriculus as being only minimally wider than the esophagus. By contrast, the pileated proventriculus as “an immense sac, resembling a crop, 2 1/4 inches in length and 1 and 5 twelfths in width,” or nearly three times as wide as the esophagus.
The proventriculus and stomach of one of Audubon’s specimens contained “a vast mass of ants and other insects”. According to Bent, Beal found one pileated stomach that contained 2,600 ants. (Others contained fewer, 153 and 469, according to Sutton.) Thus, it’s clear that even if ivorybills sometimes ate ants, they lacked the capacity to consume them in large quantities, let alone feed them to their young.
This supports Tanner’s view that specialization was a limiting factor on ivorybill populations. I’ve previously suggested that this might apply only to breeding season, but it seems reasonable to infer that it’s a factor year-round, based on the differences in proventricular structure.
All of that said, I’d argue that this specialization should not necessarily be read to include dependence on large tracts of mature, contiguous forest. The data from the Singer Tract suggest that even under these ‘optimal’ conditions, breeding was limited. And the fact that the Mack’s Bayou birds bred successfully in an area of second growth suggests that birds could thrive under ‘suboptimal’ conditions. The extent to which survival might be possible in fragmented habitat is less clear, but Snyder (citing Jackson) refers to the Mississippi population of six pairs in a 19.2 square mile forest that Tanner missed; the tract is less than 1/6 the area of the Singer Tract and is smaller than many contemporary wildlife management areas.
The tract, known as Allen Gray Estate, was west of Skene, Mississippi in Bolivar County; some or all of it is now part of Dahomey National Wildlife Refuge; the US Fish and Wildlife Service Habitat Management Plan for the refuge (2013) states that the forested portion of the refuge comprises 8100 acres and provides this historical information, “Dahomey NWR is located on the grounds of the old Dahomey Plantation founded in 1833 by F.G. Ellis and named after the homeland of his slaves. Much of the land west of the refuge was probably cleared for cultivation around this time. The land went through several owners and was purchased by Allen Gray in 1936. The portion that became the refuge was known as the “Allen Gray Woods”. This was the only significant portion of the plantation still forested.” This 8100 acre figure is 25% lower than the figure reported by Jackson and Snyder.
While I have been unable to find a detailed logging history of Bolivar County, it is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, which was known for its plantations. Between 1900 and 1940, Bolivar County was more densely populated than Madison Parish: 39.1 people per square mile as opposed to 18.9 in Madison Parish in 1900, 78.92 as opposed to 22.78 in 1930, and 74.57 as opposed to 28.33 in 1940. Based on population density and the number of towns, it seems self-evident that the habitat in Bolivar County was considerably more fragmented than was the Singer Tract.
Thus, there is good reason to question Tanner’s old growth model as well as the idea that large contiguous tracts of mature forest are required. Similarly, there’s good reason to question Snyder’s argument that hunting rather than specialization was the primary cause of the ivorybill’s collapse.
Efforts to reintroduce the beaver in the southeast began in the 1930s, and the population has been growing ever since. Beavers injure trees by partially or fully girdling them and by altering hydrology, which weakens or kills trees at the edges of the ponds they create. Beaver damage renders trees more vulnerable to infestation by ivorybill prey species, something we’ve observed repeatedly in our search area. In Tanner’s day and in the late 19th century, the beaver was barely a part of the southeastern ecosystem, but by the 1950s, beavers again were playing a role in altering southern forests, whether mature or successional.
If the ivorybill was able to survive the logging of the last large tracts of old growth forest, as I think it was, the reintroduction of the beaver may have been central to its persistence. If this hypothesis is valid, there is considerably more potential habitat today than there was in Tanner’s era; much of this potential habitat has been overlooked or dismissed in organized search efforts; and the dismissals of post-Tanner reports based on his habitat model rely, at least in part, on a false premise.
1967 slides taken by Neal Wright of a putative Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Texas are viewable on Vireo (search Ivory-billed Woodpecker), but high resolution scans have not been widely circulated as far as I know. These images were not made public until after the the Arkansas “rediscovery”, more than three decades after they were obtained. Wright’s story is mentioned in Jackson (2004) “Reynard saw the photo and said that it was fuzzy but definitely of a Campephilus woodpecker.” It’s clear from the context that Jackson had not seen the images at the time of writing.
When I first encountered the Wright slides, I was skeptical, but after seeing some lesser-known Singer Tract photographs as well as other images of Campephilus woodpeckers in cavities, my opinion started to shift. After finding additional ivorybill photographs in the Cornell archives and in Tanner’s dissertation, I thought it would be worth posting some of those images along with one of Wright’s slides for the sake of comparison.
Of course, it’s up to readers to draw their own conclusions, but I think a few things are worthy of note. First, the Wright slides were taken long before the internet, at a time when the only readily available image of an ivorybill in a nest cavity was Tanner’s Plate 1, which is quite similar to Fig. 43b (below). The posture of Wright’s bird is much closer to the ones shown in the then virtually unknown and/or unpublished images, especially those from the 1938 nest. The placement of the cavity is also strikingly similar, just below a major fork. It seems highly unlikely that Wright would have been aware of obscure Singer Tract photographs.
While the image quality is too poor to be certain, there appears to be excavation similar to work found on some Singer Tract nest and roost trees to the right of the nest cavity in Wright’s slide. Again, this is a fine detail that would likely have been unknown to Wright and that would have been difficult to fabricate.
These are very poor quality images; the malar stripe seems a little too extensive, although this could easily be a function of angle and lighting. As with the Fielding Lewis photographs, which were taken several years later, I have to wonder why anyone intent on committing a hoax wouldn’t do a better job. And in the case of the Wright pictures, it would make more sense if the template for such a hoax would have been Plate 1 in Tanner, rather than photos that were unknown to all but a handful of people, most of them at a northeastern university.
Finally, I think the fact that the images were turned over to an ornithologist (George Reynard, scroll down for his obituary) but were kept confidential for so long also tends to support the idea that they’re authentic. Neal Wright may have had an agenda – a desire to protect the area where he took the picture – but the images were not used to serve that purpose.
Edited to add: This fascinating article on a recent, non-ivorybill related hoax suggests that it’s not uncommon for hoaxes to be paradoxically uneven in quality, and that hoaxers’ motives can be murky and bizarre. Nonetheless, I think that other factors point to authenticity for both the Wright and Lewis photos.
Another item I found in Tanner’s dissertation merits comparison with one of Project Coyote’s camera trap photos, since the tree species involved are the same. Plate 7 in Tanner shows ivorybill feeding sign on honey locusts, but the reproduction in the monograph is very dark. The figure from the dissertation is much brighter, making it clearer what Tanner was attempting to show. I think the similarity to the work on our target tree, where I had a sighting a week prior to the capture, is striking.
To enlarge the trail cam photo, click here.
These two photographs, taken by Tanner in 1938 and published in his dissertation, have not been otherwise widely disseminated or (to the best of my knowledge) reprinted elsewhere. Each is interesting in its own right, and not just because they add to the small body of indisputable ivorybill imagery; the first shows the behavior of a near-fledgling (Sonny Boy) in the nest and the second for the position of the male’s crest, which is more recurved than in most or all other stills. Another series of rare images is here. Images are Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
My visits to Cornell’s Kroch Library, where the Rare and Manuscript Collections are housed, have been very productive. In addition to the last letter to Tanner pertaining to the Singer Tract ivorybills quoted at length here, I’ve come across several little known ivorybill images, some better quality reproductions of the plates in Tanner, and some additional hints about ivorybill foraging excavations that I’ll discuss in a future post. I suspect that all of the images below are actually stills from the 1935 film footage that has been lost save for a few minutes. To see it, go here and start at 14:00. To the best of my knowledge, these images have not previously been published as stills, and a couple of the frames may never have been publicly available.
The first image is similar to the one that appears on Page 82 0f The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. This is a sequence (that apparently has been lost) in which the birds are changing places on the nest. A third image that follows the first two appears on p. 120 of The Race . . . A colorized version, at once gorgeous and crude and sadly somewhat damaged, is also included here; it’s reproduced in black and white in Jackson (p. 27).
I think the bird in the remaining frames is the male. In the second frame, he may be engaging in the motion described by Tanner, “. . . jerking as though working food from the back of its mouth.” the next frame shows the him peering into the cavity. These two images are clips from the surviving footage. The final shot may have come from a lost piece of film, since a remaining clip, filmed from a similar angle doesn’t include it.
In addition to the images posted below, two figures in Tanner’s dissertation include unpublished photos from 1938 – one of a male at the nest cavity and the other of a juvenile peering out of it. Those images may also be included in a future post. All four pictures below were taken with my iPhone. I have a high resolution scan of the fourth on order, since it is one of the best representations of presumed ivorybill excavation available. Images are Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
Late last year, I wrote a post entitled “More Minutiae – Habitat Quality and Population Density in the Singer Tract”. I had to follow up with a couple of corrections and elaborations based on insights others shared with me. In the interest of providing more clarity and coherence, I thought I’d do a new piece combining the three posts and expanding on them a bit. I won’t delete the originals, but this one reflects what I think is a more accurate understanding of the material involved.
The initial post was inspired by the image above and the caption describing it as the “Third ivorybills’ nest”, one I had looked at but not closely until last year. When I did examine it carefully, I was struck by how open the surrounding area seemed to be. Then I started going through archival photographs and scrutinizing them a little more closely.
In browsing through the Louisiana Digital Library’s collection of Singer Tract photographs, I came across an image that I had missed, one of the bridge over John’s Bayou taken in 1940. Tanner (p.32) includes an ivorybill sighting from this immediate vicinity, just northwest of the bridge. What I find interesting about the photograph is that the forest along the road appears to be fairly even-aged and does not have the characteristics typically associated with old growth. It is similar to what can be found in many parts of Louisiana today. An image from along Sharkey Road taken in 1937 shows similar characteristics, although another shot from 1939 (probably taken east of the bridge) shows more impressive looking habitat.
Richard Pough wrote a follow-up report to the Audubon Society on the Singer Tract in 1944. It’s a very interesting document that raises some questions about Tanner’s work. Pough explicitly accepted “Tanner’s premises as to the feeding habits and habitat preferences of the ivory-bill”, but he also noted “[n]othing in Mr. Tanner’s study indicates that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers show any preference or marked dependence on trees of great size such as one would find only in a virgin forest. He found them doing 14% of their feeding on trees 3”-12” in diameter and 64% on trees under 24” in diameter.”
Pough pointed out that “Maps of the area as of 1846 showed much of the Tensas River in plantations and many cleared fields back from the river on some of the interior ridges. This development continued for another 20 years until the Civil War, by which time Madison Parish was producing 110,000 bales of cotton a year. As the Parish has never produced over 30,000 bales since the Civil War, one gets some idea of how much land is now occupied by second growth forest of approximately 80 years age.”
Pough found only one ivorybill, a female. He assumed, relying on Tanner, that this was the only one left in the Tract. He may well have been mistaken, since Gus Willett, game warden in the Tract, wrote Tanner about seeing a pair in November 1948 (although the exact location is unclear). Correction, Willett did not write the letter, although the report reached Tanner, as discussed here.
The lone bird Pough saw was either the John’s Bayou female or one of its offspring. According to Pough, this bird was probably not feeding in virgin forest, and his report specifically suggests that Tanner might have been mistaken about the maturity of some of the habitat in the John’s Bayou area. In 1941, Tanner had written that the remaining John’s Bayou birds were roosting and feeding in “virgin” timber. Pough’s description of this area (and it seems to be the same patch) suggests it was likely cultivated pre-Civil War. It was devoid of big sweet gums, which Pough deemed to be the best indicator of old growth conditions, but had many dying Nuttall oaks 12-20 inches in diameter. Nonetheless, Pough relied on Tanner’s premises to conclude that “only a relatively small portion of the total area of the Singer Tract supported a forest suitable as habitat for these birds.”
To return to the material in the earlier blog posts, much of the discussion focused on home ranges and the distribution of nest sites.
This map, drawn by Tanner after the 1935 expedition, lists three nests – designated as nests II, III, and IV –within a mile or two of each other and in the vicinity of John’s Bayou. Nest II is the famous “Elm Rock” nest. The map also shows a tree which is designated “Nest (?) III Squirrel” (also mentioned in Bales, “two miles to the south of the first nest” and fifty feet up p. 45). This was outside the area Tanner designated as prime in 1941 (p. 91); it is approximately a half-mile from the John’s Bayou bridge.
I’ve discussed this issue in depth with someone who’s very familiar with Tanner’s notes. I’m now persuaded Tanner concluded that nests III and IV from 1935 were not nests after all and that he assigned the birds involved to Titepaper (Nest III) and Bayou Despair (Nest IV). Nest IV is apparently one that Kuhn found but was unable to re-locate. Why Tanner changed his mind about it remains a mystery.
It’s very difficult to piece together this fragmentary information, and the monograph muddies the waters a bit by presenting the home ranges of the birds as being quite discreet, perhaps a good deal more than they were in fact. I suspect that Tanner decided the cavities were actually roosts, (although neither one is mentioned in the monograph). If so, they would have been well outside the home ranges Tanner identified and closer to the core of the John’s Bayou range than to the core of Titepaper or Bayou Despair.
Nests I and V were located near Mack’s Bayou. Nest I is dated May 14, ’34 on the map, and Nest V is dated May 10, ’35. The ’35 nest failed. It is the one referenced above. Allen and Kellogg described it as being 45’ feet up, in a pin oak snag, in a natural clearing, although it has been suggested that the snag may have been a remnant large tree in area that had been cleared prior to the Civil War. The nest designated Nest I and dated May 14, 1934 appears to be the one Tanner described on p. 81 of the monograph, “located within 100 yards of the second nest found in 1935”; however, in the monograph, he gave the date as May 13, 1933.
It’s worth pointing out that the Mack’s Bayou nests were in an area that Tanner designated as “best” for ivory bills (even if it’s not clear whether it was truly old growth). Nonetheless, nests failed in 1933 and 1935, and the adult birds had disappeared by 1938, apparently after producing one fledgling in 1936 or 1937. This was before the logging began.
My intention in writing those initial posts was to get a clearer handle on population densities and habitat requirements in the Singer Tract. In retrospect, I’m not sure that’s possible, since Tanner’s observations were almost entirely limited to one family of birds in a population that was dwindling for unknown reasons. At the very least, Tanner’s statement that 7 pairs of birds required 120 square miles of virgin forest in 1934 is based on an inflated estimate of the amount of old growth in the Tract and his minimum estimate of 6.25 square miles per pair also rests on that flawed premise.
Pough observed, “ . . . the ivorybill problem puzzles me exceedingly, and I do not feel that Tanner’s report begins to explain the reasons for the drastic decline in this species.” As the 2014-2015 search season approaches, I can only hope that the question of how the species persisted will puzzle people exceedingly in future years.
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. And that Tanner did encounter a wandering family group while watching the John’s Bayou birds. There was no indication of territoriality.
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 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 was undoubtedly J.J. Kuhn’s greatest admirer.