Passing Through: Paul James of Ijams is Looking for Clues to a Lost Species

"I'll talk about anything concerning dead birds," says Paul James. "It's my speciality, you know."

Being English, James does say speciality, not specialty. He's executive director of Ijams Nature Center, and he does have several other interests, but dead birds are right up there. James has unexpectedly become a historian of Knoxville's naturalist movement, especially as it concerns H.P. "Harry" Ijams and his riverside bird sanctuary. James' 2010 book about Ijams history was a success, a pretty fascinating document about an unusual family and the paradise they called home. More recently, James completed a small biographical picture book about florist-conservationist Brockway Crouch: A Naturalist's Life, largely the legacy of the subject's daughter, Jane Crouch Williams, who died last year but left James with a wealth of interesting photographs.

Ijams Nature Center has become famous recently for its 275 acres of varied landscape, of century-old quarries and dense woods and ponds and caves and creeks and even a weird pocket desert, the residue of a long-ago limestone-grinding operation.

Central to its visitors center, though, is Ijams' Lost Species Exhibit. Much of it revolves around the ivory-billed woodpecker, thanks to Ijams supporters Jim and Nancy Tanner, who studied the ivory bill 70 years ago. Since the loss of its last habitat to clear-cutting, no one has been able to prove the ivory bill exists anywhere, but at Ijams you can see two rare mounted ivory-bill specimens, an unexpected donation from a Catholic priest in Massachusetts last year.

Ijams staffer Stephen Lyn Bales' recent book, Ghost Birds, got national attention as an ornithological adventure story with a sad ending. (We're pulling for Lyn, by the way; he suffered a major heart attack last week, but is expected to recover.)

The ivory bill itself, a Deep South swamp dweller, probably never pecked Knoxville trees, even in its heartier days. James has become interested in another extinct bird that was once well known here. Probably no species fell from abundance to extinction in such a short time as the passenger pigeon.

There's one female mounted, just across the corridor from the ivory bills. She's a nice-looking bird, long-tailed and broad-chested, a fine-looking representative of her vanished species, given the fact that females weren't as colorful as males. Her kind once knew this area well. The Pigeon and Little Pigeon Rivers, and hence Pigeon Forge, are believed to be named for the passenger pigeon, so called because of its traveling habits.

Maybe a little bigger than your average Market Square pigeon, the passenger pigeon was about 17 inches long, and capable of flying at speeds of 60 mph, and for long periods of time. "They were robust birds," James says. The males had a wine or rose-red breast.

Early settlers and America's best-known ornithologist, John James Audubon, beheld them in awe, describing them like a giant cylinder rolling through the sky, or like a funnel cloud formed of birds. A flight of passenger pigeons sometimes lasted for days. When they landed in trees, branches sometimes broke with the weight of them.

In his research, James has come across only a few descriptions of passenger pigeons in the region. One comes from Myra Inman, a Cleveland, Tenn., woman who described a northbound flock in 1863. "We saw five flocks of wild pigeons going northward this morn, a beautiful sight," she wrote.

Once among the most numerous bird species in the world, their numbers began dropping off in the middle of the 19th century, then plummeted in the 1880s. It was an ecological catastrophe without any handy comparison. There's some mystery about what happened to this bird that was once much more abundant than human beings, but over-hunting and habitat destruction are the two chief suspects.

The founder of Ijams Nature Center was born in 1876, at the very end of the bird's dominance, and became fascinated with them just as that species was in sharp decline. James thinks it likely that Ijams saw some live passenger pigeons at the Cincinnati Zoo, which tried unsuccessfully to breed them. We know that Knoxville photographer Russell Harrison went there in 1913 to take a photograph of Martha, the very last known passenger pigeon in the world. He failed to get a good shot, he said, due to the mesh enclosure. Martha died in 1914, 98 years ago this week.

In 1928, Ijams purchased a stuffed passenger pigeon with an unusual story. In 1856, Benjamin Cheatham, the Nashville adventurer who later became a Confederate general, collected a female passenger pigeon for reasons unrecalled, mounted her, and later sold the trophy to Knoxville banker Maj. Thomas O'Conner, apparently the same one who was killed in a Gay Street gunfight in 1882. O'Conner's niece, remembered as a Mrs. Jones, sold it to Ijams.

Ijams' heirs, convinced the Great Smoky Mountains National Park could take better care of it, donated it to them in 1987, before Ijams Nature Center had facilities for dealing with such a rarity. It has been back for an extended visit, but abides at the Twin Creeks Visitors Center.

The passenger pigeon at Ijams now is on long-term loan from the University of Tennessee's McClung Museum, which also has some bones of passenger pigeons found at Tellico. That specimen's specific history is unknown.

Now to the main point of this column: Paul James is interested if anybody out there has any East Tennessee passenger-pigeon lore. Photographs of the birds in the wild are too much to hope for; when they were last abundant, even humans had to hold still for a photograph. But he suspects there might be descriptions of flocking pigeons from letters or diaries, or perhaps newspaper clippings referring to flights of birds so impressive they may be inferred to be passenger pigeons.

Ijams is part of the nationwide Project Passenger Pigeon, which is exploring the subject, perhaps a little urgently. It's possible that what happened to a species as plentiful and hearty as the passenger pigeon could happen to any other.