A Lucky Life

Remembering James Tanner

Jim Tanner on his honeymoonNancy Tanner still lives in the same flat-roofed, three-story house that she and Jim Tanner bought 60 years ago, shortly after Jim joined the faculty of the University of Tennessee. The house sits on the knife edge of a ridge in a south Knoxville community appropriately known as Little Switzerland. At 91, Nancy regularly walks the steep roadway between her house and Chapman Highway, half a mile away, “for the exercise.” She also swims laps in a nearby pool.

Nancy has had a rich and rewarding life, in no small part because she met Jim Tanner in 1940. If you ask her about Jim’s life, she will say he had a rich and rewarding life as well. Although Nancy is too modest to admit it, it’s obvious that a major part of Jim’s good fortune was meeting her.

Jim’s good fortune didn’t begin with Nancy, of course. Were he alive today, he would readily admit to always being lucky. As a scientist, though, he would also say that good fortune is the child of preparedness and opportunity, and that diligence is in its genes.

For Jim, all three were working in his favor when he showed up at Cornell University to study zoology at the height of the Great Depression. Jim’s research, over the next few years, on the largest woodpecker in the United States and the second largest in the world would elevate him, 70 years later, to legendary status.

Ivory billed woodpeckerIn 1935, Arthur Allen, the dean of American ornithology, was organizing a six-month tour of the South and West to film and record rare birds. He invited Jim to join the expedition. Jim was 20 and had just finished his undergraduate degree. He was strong and athletic—“Allen needed an agile tree climber,” Nancy says. He was a hard worker, and he knew his birds. And perhaps most important for a group that would be living together in cramped quarters, Jim had a quiet demeanor and got along easily with everyone. He was an obvious choice.

The rarest bird Allen hoped to record—indeed, the rarest bird in North America—was the ivory-billed woodpecker, a harlequin-patterned bird, in black and white, with a 30-inch wingspan, a three-inch-long brilliant white bill, and a bright red topknot on the males. Allen had seen a pair in central Florida a decade earlier but feared the species was already extinct.  Shortly after he reported the sighting, the birds were shot by a couple of taxidermists. Still, the report of a recent sighting of ivory-bills on the Singer Tract in what today is the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Louisiana was encouraging.

Pair of ivory billsAllen and his team loaded their Movietone recording equipment onto a truck and headed south. After days of searching in the Singer swamp near where the last birds had been seen, they found an active nest and set up camp. Their patience paid off. Eventually, they got the only verified recording of an ivory-bill ever made.

The six-month tour was an extraordinary success. The recordings of nearly 100 species of birds made during the trip would solidify Cornell’s reputation as the foremost ornithology laboratory in the world.

The following year, when Allen learned that the National Audubon Society was looking for someone to study ivory-bills, he recommended Jim. For the next three years, Jim got to do what almost no one had ever done—live with and study one of the Earth’s rarest creatures. It was a naturalist’s fantasy job. And to make the assignment even more rewarding, Jim was working with a bird so startling in its appearance that it had once been called the Lord God Bird, mimicking the common exclamation of those encountering an ivory-bill for the first time.

Color still of ivory billYears later, long after completing his research and writing his dissertation, which the Audubon Society published as Research Report No. 1, Jim remarked that his days in the field were among the best of his life. He said he never tired of watching the birds.

In 1940, with a Ph.D. in hand, Jim took a job teaching biology at East Tennessee State College. His fortunes were about to soar again. He met Nancy Sheedy, a psychology and English teacher at the college. Nancy had an undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s degree from Harvard. She was bright and charming and had the most astonishing blue eyes. It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was close. The couple married in 1941.

Four months later, the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor, and Jim enlisted in the Navy. Throughout the war, Jim served as a radar specialist, thanks in part to his expertise with recording equipment, which he had acquired at Cornell.

Jim and Nancy’s first child was due on Valentine’s Day, 1945, the same day Jim was scheduled to ship out on the USS Indianapolis. Of all the days in Jim’s life, that Valentine’s Day may be the most sublimely lucky. Knowing Jim was about to become a father, his commanding officer sent another man in Jim’s place. Five months later, after dropping off the uranium projectile for Little Boy, the bomb that would level Hiro­shima, the Indianapolis was sunk off the coast of Guam by two Japanese torpedoes. Of the 1,196 men on board, 317 survived after spending four horrifying days floating in shark-infested waters supported only by life jackets. About 300 of the crew were killed in the initial attack. The rest died of drowning, dehydration, shark attacks, exposure, and salt poisoning from drinking seawater. It was the worst single disaster at sea in U.S. Naval history.

Tanner at UTAfter the war, Jim took a job at the University of Tennessee, and Nancy stayed home to raise their three children. When the youngest one was in high school, Nancy resumed her own career, accepting a teaching position in UT’s College of Education.

Jim undoubtedly thought he was lucky with his family, but Nancy says that he was just a wonderful father. “Jim came home every afternoon around four to play with the kids and have dinner with them, even if he had to return to work in the evening,” Nancy says. “His kids were crazy about him, and all seven of our grandchildren carry the Tanner name. For our son, Tanner is the last name of his children, of course, but Tanner is the middle name of each of our daughters’ children.”

Jim remained at UT Knoxville for the rest of his teaching career. He wrote the basic zoology manual used by generations of UT students, he wrote a book on population dynamics, and he started UT’s graduate program in ecology, the first program of its kind in the nation.

In 1979, Jim and Nancy both retired from UT. When Jim died in 1991, the couple had been married for almost 50 years.

In his study of ivory-bills for the Audubon Society, Jim searched out suitable habitat and followed leads throughout the South, logging 48,000 miles by car and countless miles on foot, on horseback, and in a canoe, looking for other populations. He concluded that perhaps only two dozen ivory-bills were left alive. Although he continued to look for ivory-bills whenever there were reported sightings, the last birds he saw were in 1941 when he and Nancy spent two weeks studying them on the Singer Tract. The last confirmed sighting, also on the Singer Tract, was made three years later.

Although there were no more confirmed sightings of ivory-bills after 1944, the occasional sightings reported by unreliable witnesses kept hopes alive that somewhere out there a pair of ivory-bills might still exist. Most serious ornithologists, however, presumed that the ivory-bills were gone for good and the reported sightings were of the smaller pileated woodpecker.

Serious and closet birders alike were therefore astonished in April 2005 when the head of the Cornell Lab—at a press conference in Washington, D.C., with the Secretary of the Interior, senators, and other dignitaries behind him—announced the rediscovery of the ivory-bill the previous year in the
Big Woods of eastern Arkansas.

The bird world went berserk. The Endangered Species Act, which had been under heated attack from developers, had a new champion; the environmental movement had a spectacular new national symbol; and Jim Tanner was an instant celebrity.

Not everyone believed the news. Some skeptics who viewed the tapes declared the footage of the new sighting to be of a pileated woodpecker. A spate of books about the rediscovery has appeared, and the findings are controversial. But for the faithful, the bird is back.

As for Nancy, she hopes the ivory-bills are out there but admits the evidence has holes. She would love to see the birds return after being gone for 60 years. She would view their revival as a fitting monument to her husband’s life.

While admitting her husband’s great good fortune, ­Nancy thinks of herself as more blessed than lucky—blessed with a wonderful husband, a wonderful family, a wonderful life.

Still, she’s a little wistful. Thinking back two-thirds of a century to 1941, shortly after her marriage when she and Jim spent a couple of weeks together on the Singer Tract studying ivory-bills, she remarks that she is the last living person to actually study the birds. “August 15 was our 67th anniversary,” she adds. “And no one who was at the wedding is still alive either—except me.”

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