Two vintage photographs in the new book "Ijams Nature Center" (Arcadia Publishing) by Ijams Executive Director Paul James, picture vertical tubular nest boxes for birds. Mounted on poles and installed over or near water, the boxes attracted prothonotary warblers - Tennessee's only cavity-nesting warblers.
They were two of more than 100 nest boxes built and installed in the 1930s by the late H. P. Ijams on family land on the banks of the Tennessee River in South Knoxville's Island Home community. H.P. was a commercial artist. As a leader in the local bird-watching community, he was one of the founders in 1924 of what is now the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society.
In the new book's history of the Ijams family and the development of Ijams Nature Center, James states "One of H.P. Ijams's birding successes was attracting prothonotary warblers to nest frequently in a bird box by his screen porch overlooking a small lily pond behind the house."
In 1937, H.P. wrote in the Tennessee Ornithological Society journal "The Migrant" of his success in attracting three prothonotary nesting pairs to bird boxes near his home. H.P. stated "None of the nests were closer than 500 feet to the Tennessee River which flows nearby." During the previous 20 years, H.P. found only one prothonotary nest on his property and it was destroyed by high water. He attributed his success in 1937 to the fact that a fisherman had put up a crude nest box near a fishing shack on the river bank the year before and attracted a pair of prothonotaries that raised two broods.
H.P. and his wife, Alice, who was a serious gardener, had several ponds on their property where H.P. could place a nest box over water by sinking the pole in a shallow pond. Prothonotaries could nest over standing water - or nearby on a wooded shoreline - without risk of being too close to the fluctuating water levels of the large river.
If more people who live near slow-moving water near woodlands would follow in H. P. Ijams's footsteps by providing suitable nest boxes and preserving habitat for these flaming golden gems of the bird world, prothonotary warblers might have a brighter future.
Migrants return and lay eggs from mid-April until mid-July in abandoned woodpecker holes and bird houses. Prothonotaries prefer to nest near or over standing water bordered by woodlands or in wooded swamps. There's probably lots of good habitat along area lakes and rivers with quiet coves, wooded islands and wooded shorelines - if the warblers can find natural cavities or nest boxes.
H.P. designed his own unique nest boxes made of two telescoping tubes that pull apart. The adjustable, removable inside tube containing the nest made it easy to open the box for monitoring, change the cavity depth for different species and close off the entrance hole to trap non-native starlings or house sparrows. Boxes were numbered and locations mapped on the Ijams's property. H.P. kept records of species that used each box, nesting periods, eggs laid, eggs hatched and young that successfully fledged.
The new Ijams Family Legacy Exhibit at Ijams Nature Center contains a replica of H.P.'s patented nest box based on patent application drawings and specifications. Ijams family bird memorabilia and photographs featured in the exhibit and in the book relate to the early history of bird-watching, bird-watchers and the Tennessee Ornithological Society in East Tennessee.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the original purchase of the Ijams family land, which the family shared for many decades with the public as a bird sanctuary, gardening showplace, site for scouting activities and meeting place for bird-watchers and naturalists. The land is now the heart of Ijams Nature Center where visitors and staff continue the Ijams family traditions of nature study, gardening, conservation and environmental education.