Book Shelf, Book 1-The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

February 15, 2005


By Tim Gallagher 
Houghton Mifflin Company, $25

The announcement of a confirmed sighting of the ivorybilled woodpecker in April 2005 was greeted like a confirmed extraterrestrial alien sighting. It was astonishing, contrary to accepted general wisdom, breathtaking.

Voices crack talking about it. This bird is so amazing that it is commonly called the Lord God Bird, because that's what people would exclaim when they saw it. Its wingspan is 30-31 inches, white flashing wings topped by a red head.

After the last confirmed sighting in 1944, conventional wisdom abandoned the ivorybilled woodpecker to extinction. By 2001, Tim Gallagher, a lifelong bird lover and editor of Living Bird magazine, official publication of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, had heard enough whispers and unconfirmed reports that he was convinced Ivory-bills were still out there somewhere. He started writing this book, one of the reasons it was able to appear on the market so soon after the announcement.

Gallagher has studied nesting seabirds and falcons from an open boat along Greenland's coast. He has climbed Iceland's cliffs in pursuit of the gyrfalcon, the world's largest falcon and he was ready when the Ivory-bill beckoned.

One of the effects of assuming the Ivory-bill was extinct was disbelief of any reported sightings. Worse, those who report sightings faced outright ridicule. That silenced the trickle of reports that continued through the years, relegating them to personal communications and, with the advent of the Internet, electronic chatter.

The Ivory-bill developed the identity of a ghost bird, not only rare or unusual, but whose sightings were more like apparitions. Reports came from psychics who were in telepathic communication with the birds and cryptozoologists who hunt the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot. It became the Grail Bird.

Gallagher set out to sift through the reports. The Grail Bird recounts his experiences as he visited the individuals who reported seeing Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, seeking the nuggets of fact, weighing the credible against the wishful. When a solid report from experienced outdoorsman Gene Sparling in Bayou de View, Ark., reached him in February 2004, he was prepared. On the trail with old friend and colleague Bobby Ray Harrison a week later, they were rewarded with a tantalizing but irrefutable sighting.

Keeping the sighting secret, they assembled a team to search for the bird. Intensive searching produced at least 15 more sightings, additional brief video and several audio recordings of the characteristic rapping.

No serious doubts remain as to the bird's existence. For an endangered species, it's a reprieve from the brink of extinction.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker disappeared when its habitat, the 24 million acres of Mississippi Delta bottomland swamp forests, was destroyed. A remnant 4.4 million acres is scattered and isolated, its timber logged off and the river that nourished the bottomlands confined behind levees and dams. The Big Woods Conservation Partnership has formed to restore 200,000 more acres in addition to the 18,000 acres The Nature Conservancy has already saved in the 550,000 acres of Big Woods in Arkansas.

The morals of this story, still unfolding, are many and varied. Gallagher offers the one he considers most important: "It gives us one final chance to get it right: to start restoring the vast bottomland forests of the South that these birds require."

For journalists, perhaps it's equally important to remember that reports that are initially unbelievable may hold a kernel of truth. Perhaps the finest sense we can develop is the perfect pitch that discriminates between the real and the bogus, the compass that directs us to the true and complete story beneath the comfortable and received wisdom of the conventional.

Christine Heinrichs is a Madison, Wisc.,-based freelancer who writes about genetic diversity and other issues relating to rare and historic poultry, environmental issues on golf courses and environmental law.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2005 issue

Topics on the Beat: