Tim Gallagher's book, "The Grail Bird," brought back a particular memory for me. I grew up not 50 miles from Bayou de View, the Arkansas swamp where...

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“The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker”
by Tim Gallagher
Houghton Mifflin, 250 pp., $25

Tim Gallagher’s book, “The Grail Bird,” brought back a particular memory for me. I grew up not 50 miles from Bayou de View, the Arkansas swamp where the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought extinct, was rediscovered by Gallagher and two colleagues.

Traveling back and forth on the highway between Memphis and Little Rock, I’d spot the sign marking the bayou. I’d peer down dark tunnels of brown water shaded by enormous cypress trees and think, What a great place to paddle a kayak. No telling what you might find there.

Indeed.

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The 2004 rediscovery of the “grail bird” is now ornithological history. Gallagher, who wrote this book in the year between his sighting and its disclosure to the world this spring, tells a poignant story in his affecting and occasionally aggravating book.

It’s the story of a beautiful creature being driven ever deeper into its shrinking home in the Southern woods, as land speculators and farmers dredged and burned its habitat.

More information

For updates on the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker, go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Web site at www.birds.cornell.edu, or the Nature Conservancy’s Web site at www.tnc.org.

It’s an account of some very dedicated (read: obsessed) birdwatchers and bird scientists who could not quite extinguish the hope in their hearts that there might still be ivory-bills out there. (Note to reader: If you are an avid birder, you will like this book.)

And it’s a signal lesson in the premise that if you ever see something really rare, be it an ivory-billed woodpecker, space alien or Sasquatch, you’d better have backup.

Gallagher, an author and wildlife photographer whose day job is editor-in-chief of Living Bird, the publication of the prestigious Cornell Lab of Ornithology, opens his account with the dismal history of the ivory-billed woodpecker’s decline. Indians killed them to make necklaces of their shining white bills; 19th-century ornithologists shot them with muskets to study their carcasses.

But it was largely destruction of the once-thought-limitless Southern woods that almost did the birds in. “The bird has a kind of glamour — if that’s the right word — that the Bachman’s warbler, the Eskimo curlew, and even the passenger pigeon lack,” Gallagher writes. “It’s big. It’s beautiful. And its disappearance went hand in hand with the destruction of the most neglected habitat in North America: the vast southern bottomland hardwood forests.”

One wave of destruction occurred after the Civil War, when Northern land speculators bought up tracts of verdant Southern bottom land.

Greg Guirard, a Cajun author and nature photographer, explained to Gallagher: “A lot of land and lumber companies in the North were practically given the land down here,” he said. “I’ve heard the prices ranged from twenty-five cents an acre down to eight cents an acre.” Another occurred after a run-up in soybean prices in the 1970s and 1980s, as Southern farmers burned down forests and plowed the land for soybeans.

Gallagher then diligently walks the reader through accounts of virtually everyone who thought they saw an ivory-billed woodpecker in the 20th century. This gets repetitive, but it illustrates the “backup” principle, as well as the axiom that you’re a lot more likely to be believed if you have several advanced degrees.

For example: Kenn Duke, a Louisianan who says he saw a number of ivory-billed woodpeckers in an area he hunted and fished from 1969 to 1990, could never get his sightings taken seriously.

When he read the ivory-billed was extinct, he went to Louisiana State University’s Museum of Natural Science to report his experiences. “All I got was, ‘Sorry, kid, you saw a pileated,’ ” he said. “No,” he replied in frustration. “I’ve watched them for hours on end, year after year.”

He was told that it was impossible; the birds were extinct. He left a message, but no one ever contacted him. (Note to reader: Right now you may be thinking that you have seen an ivory-billed woodpecker. What you are seeing is a pileated woodpecker, which resembles the ivory-bill but differs in key respects.)

Then Gallagher gets down to his own story — how he and Alabama resident Bobby Harrison, acting on a possible sighting by Arkansas kayaker Gene Sparling, sighted a real, true ivory-billed woodpecker in Bayou de View.

Harrison, a Southern good old boy with a taste for Dinty Moore canned beef stew, had become Gallagher’s brother in arms in this hunt — their Bayou de View expedition had been just one of many the pair made into the southern back country to try to verify ivory-billed sightings.

The grail bird was found on Feb. 27, 2004, by Gallagher and Harrison, with help from Sparling. It was a once-in-a lifetime moment, Gallagher writes.

“Bobby Harrison called his wife, ill from asthma and diabetes, on his cellphone: ” … he engaged in small talk for about ten minutes, asking how she was doing, how her latest tests at the hospital had gone. Then he stopped abruptly and let out a deep sigh. ‘I saw an ivory-bill,’ he said, and then he broke down and sobbed. ‘I saw an ivory-bill.’ “

The rest of the story is a bit anticlimactic, as legions of smart and qualified bird scientists and bird-watchers are dispatched from Cornell to verify the sighting. By now the willing reader has been thoroughly convinced, but here the backup principle once again comes into play.

Gallagher feels compelled to acknowledge and describe all these folks and account for the circumstances of their own hearings of the bird’s call, or sightings of the bird itself. This might make him a more popular fellow in scientific circles, but it weighs the narrative down.

Well, so what. This is an inspiring story. What follows is going to be even more interesting, as scientists try to verify that there’s more than one ivory-bill, or, hope against hope, that there’s actually a breeding population in the trees of the big woods of Arkansas (another group of dissident scientists has challenged whether the Cornell group saw an ivory-bill at all).

The other story, that a modern-day Faulkner might be best equipped to chronicle, is what happens next in the economically depressed counties around the Big Woods, where folks have their own hopes that this discovery will promote tourism and economic development.

What a lot of weight to hang on the frail wings of an almost-gone bird. Emily Dickinson once wrote a poem titled “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers.” Poetic words, and never more true than in the ongoing story of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com