The Race to Save the Lord God Bird

Free The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose

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Authors: Phillip Hoose
nearly seven thousand photographs and 1,600 feet of motion-picture film of birds that few Americans had seen. He had added to America’s knowledge of birds without ever firing a shot. And, of course, he had rediscovered the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. But just before he and Edna left Florida, a message from Tindall cast the whole expedition into a cloud of gloom. Two local collectors had been following the Allens and Tindall on their Florida quest. They knew the Ivory-bills were valuable and had asked the county sheriff for a permit to hunt them. Amazingly, the sheriff had obliged. Now, according to Morgan Tindall, the birds were gone.
    So it was that the normally unflappable Arthur Allen wore a grim expression when he gave reporters a terse statement: “As long as the state of Florida allows [Ivory-bills] to he taken legally,” he said, “ … the species is doomed to certain extinction.” He didn’t share his personal feelings, but he must have worried that their extinction might have already occurred. Worst of all must have been the thought that he, Arthur Allen, America’s only full-time professor of ornithology and a man who had dedicated his life to understanding birds in the wild, had unwittingly helped to seal the fate of America’s rarest bird.

    The first photograph ever taken—by Doc Allen—of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

    My best Acquaintances are those
With Whom I spoke no Word.
    â€”Emily Dickinson
    Central New York State—1914–1934
    T HERE IS A FAMILY PHOTOGRAPH OF JIMMY TANNER, EIGHT OR NINE YEARS OLD, SEATED on a park bench, looking out at the world through a pair of binoculars. Beside him, his tall older brother, Edward, is bent in intense concentration over a book while his mother also reads. Jimmy is in a world of his own, totally absorbed in whatever he is looking at. Odds are it was a bird.
    The slender, sandy-haired boy behind the binoculars would grow up to become forever linked to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. He would know it best, spend the most time with it, record its voice, take the best pictures of it, and devote years of his life to trying to save it from extinction. Had he been born a few decades earlier, he might well have grown up, like Arthur Wayne, trying to study the Ivory-bill by collecting specimens. But he was a product of the Audubon movement, part of the first generation of ornithologists that learned mainly by studying how birds behaved in their natural habitats.
    Jim Tanner was born in the small town of Cortland, New York, in 1914, the same year that Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. The Tanners gave their two sons a well-rounded education that included a strenuous outdoor life, a
church upbringing, and exposure to mechanical skills as well as book learning. Jim could fix almost anything and invent what he couldn’t. He could take complicated things apart, remember where he had laid all the pieces, and then put them back together. People told him that if he could ever think of anything useful to invent, he might get rich someday. To make themselves hardier, like President Theodore Roosevelt, Jim and Edward slept outside on a screened-in porch even on the frostiest New York winter nights. They shivered plenty, but rarely got sick.
    More than anything Jim loved the outdoors. He explored the territory near his home after school, seldom making it home “by dinner,” the family rule. On weekends he set off on long hikes, stuffing a slab of beef wrapped in waxed paper into his knapsack to cook over a fire when he got hungry. Sometimes alone, sometimes with his friend Carl McAllister, he traced the flat, low ridges around the lake country of central New York, exploring the gorges and blue glacial ponds, hauling himself up granite boulders, probing through marshes, learning to be quieter.
    Like most small-town boys, Jim owned a rifle and liked to shoot it,

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