Bridging the Sciences
Jim Tanner: birdman with a mind for math
Young James T. Tanner arrived at East Tennessee State College (today: University) in September 1940. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians with Buffalo and Cherokee mountains to the south, Tanner must have felt at home on the wooded campus, it looked all the world like his homeland: western New York State. The new biology professor had just finished his PhD in ornithology at Cornell University and was ready for a new challenge.
Dr. Tanner had also just completed a three year, ground-breaking study and follow-up dissertation on the ivory-billed woodpecker, the famed “Ghost Bird” of the Southern swamps. It was the first such detailed field study of a single species on the verge of extinction; and the first research fellowship funded by the National Audubon Society. With it Tanner set the gold-standard for others to follow.
Shortly after arriving on the Johnson City campus, Tanner met a new assistant professor at the college, fellow New Yorker and Harvard-educated Nancy Sheedy. The two became inseparable, soon fell in love and were married in August one year later. Except for his four year stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Jim and Nancy Tanner lived the rest of their lives together in the Volunteer State.
In January 1947, Tanner joined the faculty of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, becoming an assistant professor of zoology. At UT, Tanner’s fieldwork continued. One significant early study was a comparison of black-capped and Carolina chickadees, two closely related species that coexist in the Southern Appalachians. His findings were published in The Auk in 1952. In 1953, Tanner was promoted to associate professor at the university and full professor in 1963. After a visit to Mexico with his son David, Tanner published a report the following year in The Auk on the decline and status of the imperial woodpecker, native to the Sierra Madre from northern Sonora to northern Michoacán...
For he rest of my article look in the March/April 2012 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist.