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 Harrisonart history professor, photographer, southerner, and dyed-in-the-wool ivory-bill chaserhit 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.
The first person to describe the species. Catesby wrote a book on natural history in the early 1700s and described the bird as the "largest white-bill wood-pecker."
Published the first comprehensive account of North American bird life (1811).
Tried (unsuccessfully) to keep an ivory-billed woodpecker as a pet.
1920s and '30s
ARTHUR A. ALLEN
Founded the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
Took the first photographs of a living pair of ivory-bills, in Florida in 1924. (Even at this early date, most ornithologists believed they were extinct.) Eleven years later, in Louisiana's famed Singer Tract, Allen made the first motion pictures and sound recordings of an ivory-bill.
Joined the great 1935 Brand-Cornell University-American Museum of Natural History Ornithological Expedition as a graduate student.
Studied ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Singer Tract (Louisiana) from 1937 to 1939; wrote The Ivory-billed Woodpecker
The only person who ever studied the species in depth.
The only person who ever banded an ivory-bill; Tanner nicknamed the bird Sonny Boy.
Accompanied her husband, Jim, to the Singer Tract and saw ivory-bills in 1940 and 1941.
A wildlife artist who saw and sketched an ivory-bill in the Singer Tract in April 1944.
Eckelberry's is the last universally accepted sighting of the bird in the United States.
JOHN V. DENNIS
Snapped the last scientifically accepted photograph of an ivory-bill, in 1948 in Cuba.
Later saw an ivory-bill in the Big Thicket country of Texas, though his sighting was largely dismissed by mainstream ornithologists.
Spotted an ivory-bill on the Chipola River in northwestern Florida in March 1950.
HERBERT L. STODDARD
Saw an ivory-bill over Georgia's Altamaha River during a thunderstorm and also a pair of the woodpeckers in Thomasville, Georgia, in 1958, though he never formally reported the sightings.
A naturalist and author who sighted a pair of ivory-bills in Florida in 1955 but kept the sighting a secret for more than 30 years for fear of being scorned.
The first director of Louisiana State University's Museum of Natural Science. Lowery took a friend's snapshots of an ivory-bill by an anonymous photographer to the 1971 meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union, where they were met with immediate withering skepticism.
The cigar-smoking chairman of the Louisiana state boxing commission and the author of Tales of a Louisiana Duck Hunter
Took the photographs given to George Lowery. Lewis has no doubt that he saw ivory-bills a number of times in the Atchafalaya Basin.
JAMES VAN REMSEN
The current curator of birds at Louisiana State University's Museum of Natural Science.
Holds the unofficial repository of ivory-bill sightings and lore.
Reported seeing a pair of ivory-bills in Louisiana's Pearl River Wildlife Management Area (less than an hour's drive from New Orleans) while he was hunting turkeys. This sighting led to a series of major searches in the area.
Kulivan now refuses to discuss the sighting.
A former corporate lawyer who left it all behind to chase ghost birds.
Started searching for ivory-bills in 2000.
Claims to have seen ivory-bills in Louisiana and Arkansas, though her claims are met with skepticism.
A seasoned outdoorsman who posted on an online listserv a long description of his trip down a narrow bayou in eastern Arkansas and the "unusual woodpecker" he saw.
When contacted by Tim Gallagher, he agreed to take Gallagher and his colleague, Bobby Harrison, down the bayou to look for the bird.
BOBBY RAY HARRISON
An ivory-bill chaser with a large collection of memorabilia. Harrison has been searching for the bird for more than 30 years.
Spotted the bird with author and friend Tim Gallagher in February 2004. Their sighting spurred an intensive search effort led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Arkansas chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
The author, who first became interested in the ivory-billed woodpecker in the early 1970s, after reading about the bird in Life
In 2001, Gallagher began working on a book titled The Grail Bird
. He embarked on his own quest, finally sighting the bird on February 27, 2004, while following up on a lead from Gene Sparling. His discovery (with Bobby Ray Harrison) sparked the launch of a major search effort, culminating in the protection of the species' continually vanishing habitat.
JOHN "FITZ" FITZPATRICK
The director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the former president of the American Ornithologists' Union.
After discussing the sighting with Tom Gallagher, Fitzpatrick decided that locating and studying the ivory-billed woodpecker(s) in eastern Arkansas would be the lab's number-one research and conservation priority.
The state director of the Arkansas chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
Joined the Bayou de View search team. Simon is working to acquire the land for TNC and is passionately committed to restoring this southern bottomland swamp forest.