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The Grail Bird

A Conversation with Tim Gallagher

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.


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