Synopses & Reviews
The ivory-billed woodpecker ghost bird of the swamp. Big, beautiful, iconic, and mysterious, the bird is a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with our relationship to the environment. First plundered by nineteenth-century collectors and then a victim of massive habitat destruction, the bird has been sought for decades by those trying to determine whether this remarkable species still exists. Their findings have been met with ridicule and scorn; since the early twentieth century, most of the scientific world has believed that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct.
But when author Tim Gallagher set out to write The Grail Bird, he mounted his own quest for the elusive bird and discovered the amazing truth: the ivory-billed woodpecker lives!
The Grail Bird goes behind recent headlines to tell the story of Tim Gallagher's pursuit and discovery of the bird. Editor in chief of Living Bird, the flagship publication of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Gallagher couldn't (and wouldn't) accept the idea that the ivory-bill was gone forever. He set out to learn everything he could about the bird, tracking down and interviewing dozens of people who claimed to have seen it, reading everything he could find, and finally hitting the swamps himself to explore potential ivory-bill habitats across the South. An irrefutable sighting by Gallagher and a colleague in February 2004 quickly led to the largest search ever mounted to find a rare bird, as researchers fanned out across the bayou to document this most iconic of birds.
"You never know when you get up in the morning what earth-shaking event might take place and change your life forever," Gallagher writes. For Tim Gallagher, it was reading a posting on a canoe club listserv about a strange woodpecker a kayaker named Gene Sparling had seen on a float trip down a remote bayou in eastern Arkansas. Less than two weeks after this sighting, Gallagher and his buddy Bobby Ray Harrison art history professor, photographer, southerner, and dyed-in-the-wool ivory-bill chaser hit the swamp with Sparling, canoeing through the bayou in search of the mystery bird. Tim and Bobby had their first ivory-bill sighting there.
In this unparalleled birding adventure story, Tim Gallagher takes us across the country, from the renowned Cornell Lab in Ithaca, New York, to the Big Thicket country of east Texas, the Atchafalaya Swamp in Louisiana, and the wild bayous of Arkansas. He brings to life figures from history, such as John James Audubon, Alexander Wilson, and Arthur A. Allen, and introduces characters like Mary Scott, a corporate lawyer turned ghost-bird chaser, and Fielding Lewis, the chairman of the Louisiana Boxing Commission, whose anonymous snapshots of the ivory-bill were met with skepticism in the 1970s. Readers join the expedition team along with celebrated naturalists, researchers, and the Cornell Lab's birding team, the Sapsuckers.
We have lost most of the vast old-growth forests of the South, and nothing symbolizes that loss more than the ivory-billed woodpecker. But the rediscovery of the bird symbolizes hope for these neglected and abused habitats, which with time and effort can be partially restored. We have been given one final chance to get it right, to save this bird and the bottomland swamp forests it needs in order to survive.
History comes alive in The Grail Bird, in which the expeditions of yesteryear take on present-day relevance in light of the ongoing quest. The dedication of the obsessed bunch of searchers is tangible, and Tim Gallagher's passion for the bird led not only to this book but to the rediscovery of a species. Readers of The Grail Bird will cheer for the ivory-billed woodpecker's miraculous survival, and they will hear the bird's distinctive kent calls in their imagination long after they finish the book.
"Gallagher's firsthand account...has an immediacy that sweeps the reader into the thrill of his first sighting. This is popular science writing at its best, and deserves a place in all libraries." Booklist
"An engaging story of the triumph of conservation, this book is highly recommended..." Library Journal
"[A]n enjoyable and easy read, a good introduction to the ecology of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a powerful call for conservation, and an exciting birding adventure." Boston Globe
"Gallagher...does a wonderful job documenting the natural history and tracking the lore of the ivory-billed woodpecker..." San Antonio Express-News
"A fascinating account..." Orlando Sentinel
"What could have been an ornithological paean to a lost species is instead an edge-of-your-seat ride into the hardwood swamps of the South that drips flavor like syrup on a mess of grits." Cleveland Plain Dealer
The author takes up the chase of an extinct or at least elusive bird heading deep into the trackless Southern swamps and bayous to determine once and for all if the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still lives.
What is it about the ivory-billed woodpecker? Why does this ghost of the southern swamps arouse such an obsessive level of passion in its devotees, who range from respected researchers to the flakiest Loch Ness monster fanatics and Elvis chasers?
Since the early twentieth century, scientists have been trying their best to prove that the ivory-bill is extinct. But every time they think they've finally closed the door, the bird makes an unexpected appearance. It happened in the 1920s, and its happened in almost every subsequent decade.
For more than 60 years, each sighting has been met with ridicule and scorn. Respected researchers and naturalists have been branded as quacks just for having the temerity to say that the ivory-bill still exists. Yet the reports still trickle in. Is there any truth to these sightings, or are they just a case of wishful thinking, misidentification, or outright fabrication?
To unravel the mystery, author Tim Gallagher heads south, deep into the eerie swamps and bayous of the vast Mississippi Delta, searching for people who claim to have seen this rarest of birds and following up sometimes more than 30 years after the fact on their sightings. He meets a colorful array of characters: a cigar-chomping ex-boxer who took two controversial pictures of an alleged ivory-bill in 1971; a former corporate lawyer who abandoned her career to search for ivory-bills full time; two men who grew up in the ivory-bills last known stronghold in a final remnant of primeval forest in Louisiana.
With his buddy Bobby Harrison, a true son of the South from Alabama, Gallagher hits the swamps, wading through hip-deep, boot-sucking mud and canoeing through turgid, mudbrown bayous where deadly cottonmouth water moccasins abound. In most cases, they are clearly decades too late. But when the two speak to an Arkansas backwoods kayaker who saw a mystery woodpecker the week before and has a description of the bird that is too good to be a fantasy, the hunt is on.
Their Eureka moment comes a few days later as a huge woodpecker flies in front of their canoe, and they both cry out, Ivory-bill! This sighting the first time since 1944 that two qualified observers positively identify an ivory-billed woodpecker in the United States quickly leads to the largest search ever launched to find a rare bird, as researchers fan out across the bayou, hoping to document the existence of this most iconic of birds.
What is it about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker? Why does this supposedly long-extinct bird arouse such an amazing level of interest and dedication in its devotees, who range from respected researchers and naturalists to Loch Ness monster fanatics and Elvis chasers? Since the early twentieth century, scientists have been trying their best to prove that the Ivory-bill is extinct. But every time they think they"ve finally closed the door, the bird makes an unexpected appearance. It happened in the 1920s, it happened in the 1930s, and it has happened almost every decade since. For at least the past sixty years, every sighting has been met with ridicule and scorn. Friendships have ended. Careers have been ruined. And yet the reports still trickle in. Now author Tim Gallagher takes up the chase, heading deep into the trackless southern swamps and bayous to determine once and for all if the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still lives.
In April 2005, a startling announcement made national and international news: the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird thought to be extinct for nearly sixty years, had been sighted. The story behind this incredible discovery began more than a year earlier when, after a lengthy search, Tim Gallagher was one of the first people to see this iconic bird, the holy grail of birdwatchers. He persuaded the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology to mount a massive search for evidence of the bird's existence. The news was kept secret while field teams went to work and land was bought to conserve the ivory-bill's habitat. Gallagher's story reads like a mystery novel, and the subsequent conservation efforts provide hope and a lesson for our times.
About the Author
Tim Gallagher is a lifelong bird fanatic. An award-winning writer and photographer, he is editor in chief of Living Bird
, the flagship publication of the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For many years Tim has traveled to faraway places, from the high Arctic to the tropics, to study and photograph birds and report on research.
He is the author of Wild Bird Photography, Birdwatching, Where the Birds Are: The 100 Best Birding Spots in North America, Parts Unknown: A Naturalist's Journey in Search of Birds and Wild Places, and most recently The Grail Bird.
Table of Contents
CONTENTS Preface xiii 1. Of People and Peckerwoods 1 2. Me and Bobby Ray 28 3. Jim and Nancy 37 4. Mary, Mary 54 5. White River Revisited 66 6. A Paradise on Earth 85 7. The Boxer 100 8. The LSU Connection 115 9. The Land of Dead Giants 134 10. A Bayou with a View 145 11. The Third Degree 161 12. Back to the Bayou 168 13. Where Sapsuckers Dare 188 14. Trying to Prove the Existence of a Ghost 205 15. Swamp Rats 219 16. The Lazarus Bird 235 Epilogue 241 Acknowledgments and Sources 251 Index 259
What motivated you to start searching for the ivory-billed woodpecker?
I've always been the kind of person who gets caught up in obsessive quests, most of which seem to involve birds. I have taken part in many research expeditions to faraway places like Greenland, Iceland, and northern Canada, roping down lofty cliffs to falcon nests. The ivory-bill has been lurking in my mind since the early 1970s, when I read about some possible sightings of the bird in east Texas. Although many scientists discounted these reports, they piqued my interest and got me started learning more about the bird. The ivory-bill is so iconic: big, beautiful, mysterious a symbol of everything that's gone wrong with our relationship to the environment. I thought if someone could just locate an ivory-bill, could prove that this remarkable species still exists, it would be the most hopeful event imaginable. We would have one final chance to save this bird and the bottomland swamp forests it needs to survive.
You've had many amazing experiences in your arctic expeditions. What was it about the search for the ivory-bill that appealed to your sense of adventure?
In some ways, we live in an age of diminished challenges. Now even climbing Mount Everest or riding a dogsled to the North Pole has become blasé a feat any businessman with a big enough bankroll can accomplish in a couple of weeks. The hunt for the ivory-billed woodpecker was different. I knew that accomplishing it would require endless slogging through boot-sucking muck and mire and swampland through mosquitoes, deadly water moccasins, bears, and who knows what else as well as an amazing amount of luck. As I began the search, rediscovering this iconic species loomed as one of the last great challenges left in the latte age.
Why has the public's interest in the ivory-billed woodpecker grown so much during the last few years?
When a Louisiana turkey hunter emerged from the swamp in the spring of 1999 with a tale about a pair of large woodpeckers with field marks that exactly fit those of the ivory-bill, people were astounded. Everyone believed this bird had been extinct for decades, and now here was a seemingly credible report of not one but two of the birds, a male and a female, in good habitat. Everyone who admires the bird must have breathed a collective sigh of relief the ivory-bill is okay; it miraculously survived, and now if we can just maintain enough suitable habitat for it, the species will slowly recover.
What an amazing thought and how crushing when no one was able to find the birds during subsequent searches. That's what really got me going. I didn't want to give up that dream. I didn't want to accept the idea that the ivory-bill was gone forever. I started looking for people who'd had direct experience with the ivory-bill to see if there was anything I could glean from their knowledge that would help me in my search for this bird. I interviewed dozens of people a few of whom I felt had definitely seen ivory-bills; many who clearly had not. I read every obscure reference to the bird that I could find. And finally I hit the swamp myself, exploring potential ivory-bill habitat across the South. This effort led directly to the rediscovery.
Scientists have believed for more than six decades that the ivory-bill is extinct, and yet reports of these birds seem to emerge every few years. Why haven't these reports been taken more seriously?
For decades, mainstream ornithologists have pooh-poohed the reports of anyone with the temerity to say that he or she has seen an ivory-billed woodpecker. Even respected ornithologists were laughed at behind their backs for believing the bird still existed. This had a chilling effect on efforts to try to find and help these birds. Some researchers passed up chances to check on credible sightings: it just wasn't worth putting your career at risk when just to admit that you believe the ivory-bill still might exist could subject you to ridicule by your colleagues. To me this is the opposite of what science should be. Scientists should approach every question without bias, weighing the available data and rendering judgment with an open, dispassionate mind. This has been anything but the case with the ivory-billed woodpecker for almost a century. The belief that this bird is extinct has been such a strongly held view for so long it has become a tenet as rigidly and dogmatically held by many ornithologists as those held by the most fundamentalist of religious sects. I believed it was time to change that, which is why I began following up on people's sightings.
What in your opinion is the most important thing about the rediscovery of the ivory-bill?
It gives us one final chance to get it right: to start restoring the vast bottomland forests of the South that these birds require. What happened to these forests during the past 150 years is one of the greatest environmental tragedies in the history of America, and few people know about it. It is still one of our most neglected and abused habitats. I'll never forget reading an article by Theodore Roosevelt about his 1907 trip to the primeval forests of northeastern Louisiana. He actually saw three ivory-bills, which were the high point of his trip. He also described the woods vividly: "In stature, in towering majesty, they are unsurpassed by any trees of our eastern forests; lordlier kings of the green-leaved world are not to be found until we reach the sequoias and redwoods of the Sierras." And yet, at a time when people in this country were saving Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the giant redwoods, they didn't even think about the southern forests. Logging companies took countless millions of board feet of lumber from these woods, year after year after year. Even as late as 1940, when we had the chance to save a remnant of primeval swamp forest at Louisiana's Singer Tract, we didn't do it. We let it go. Consequently, no one in our generation or the next or the next will have the chance to see the spectacle of a southern forest with trees 9 feet in diameter towering 150 feet high. They're gone obliterated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The best we can hope for now is that through our actions, our great-great-grandchildren may see that forest restored to its former glory. That's what I want.
What was the strangest experience you had while searching for ivory-bills?
It would have to be when a cottonmouth water moccasin the deadliest southern snake crawled up into the engine compartment of Bobby Harrison's SUV. You know you're in trouble when a southern man's voice goes up a couple of octaves. "Oh no, it's gone up into the car," Bobby moaned. "What am I gonna do? What'll I tell my wife?" (It was actually her car.) He decided to drive the car back and forth fast, slamming on the brakes, hoping to flip the snake onto the ground. The worst part was that he had to climb back into the car to drive it after I had mentioned the fact that the snake might be able to crawl inside through the gas pedal hole or the heater duct. Amazingly, after about a dozen tries, it worked, and the snake came flying out, almost landing at my feet. It was the biggest cottonmouth I've ever seen.