The Grail Bird: The Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The Grail Bird: The Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

by Tim Gallagher

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The Grail Bird is an enjoyable read . . . A powerful call for conservation, and an exciting bird adventure” (The Boston Globe).
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.
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 thirty years after the fact—on their sightings. What follows is his own Eureka moment with his buddy Bobby Harrison, a true son of the South from Alabama. 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.
The Grail Bird is less an ecological study than a portrait of human obsession.” —The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781328859112
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/25/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 91,430
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

As TIM GALLAGHER was working on his book The Grail Bird, he was among the first to sight the long-thought-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas, which led to a multi-million-dollar effort to confirm the sighting and protect the bird's dwindling habitat. The sighting changed the direction of the book, for which Gallagher won the Outdoor Writers Association of America's Best Book award for 2005. Gallagher is editor-in-chief of Living Bird magazine and of the Journal of the North American Falconers' Association.

Read an Excerpt



I GUESS THIS STORY BEGINS, at least for me, in an old white barn in a field in Ithaca, New York. Nicknamed the Dog Barn, the building has been used for years as a storage area by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, where I work. As I sit here on its upper floor, I gaze at a massive hollow tree stump before me, then at a photograph of an active ivory-billed woodpecker nest. In the picture, which was taken in the mid-1930s by the lab's founder, Arthur A. Allen, an adult male ivory-bill clings to the side of a tree beside its nest hole. It is clear that the stump in front of me was sawed from the same tree shown in the picture. Placing my hand exactly where the bird is sitting in the photograph, I close my eyes. It's an eerie feeling. Right here, on this rough patch of bark, one of the rarest birds on earth — a species that most scientists declared extinct decades ago — clung to this tree and tried, against all odds, to reproduce its kind.

The motion pictures and sounds recorded by Allen during his 1935 expedition are the only universally accepted ones ever made of this species. But I'm getting ahead of myself. To understand and appreciate the ivory-billed woodpecker phenomenon fully, we need to go back to the days of colonial America and trace the history of the birds' relationship with people.

Probably the best place to start is with Mark Catesby, an Englishman who came to this country in 1712 and began working on a natural history of the plants and animals of the North American colonies. Of course the indigenous people already knew ivory-bills well and used their big white bills as items of barter, but the Native Americans' relationship with the birds is known chiefly through the writings of Catesby and a handful of other early naturalists.

Catesby named the bird the "Largest White-bill Woodpecker" — as accurate a name as any, I guess — and he was apparently the first person to describe the species. I say "apparently" because some believe that Catesby borrowed a number of his species descriptions from the work of John Lawson, an earlier naturalist who ran into a spot of trouble at the hands of the Tuscaroras in 1711. Just a year previously, he had been commissioned to compile a complete natural history of America. Unfortunately, he joined a Swiss adventurer, Baron Christoph von Graffenried, who was trying to cook up some get-rich-quick schemes.

Graffenried convinced Lawson to go with him on an exploratory trip from the Carolinas to Virginia, to see if the Neuse River was a better route than the existing one. The two men and their companions were soon captured by a large party of Tuscaroras, who hated all white men for usurping their land and their hunting rights. The Tuscaroras decided that the unwelcome intruders should be put to death — slowly. But Graffenried, an engaging con man in the Baron von Munchausen mode, convinced them that he was a particular favorite of the Great White Queen in England and that they must release him at once or face the consequences. It must have been a galling moment for Lawson, seeing Graffenried stroll merrily away just before the Indians stuck him and the others full of pitch-pine splinters, which they subsequently set on fire.

John Lawson's untimely demise left the field of North American nature study wide open for Mark Catesby. Catesby had a high time in the colonies, frequently carousing with his good friend William Byrd II of Westover, Virginia. When the two got together, the entertainment was often lavish. One time as they traveled home on a ship, the two "were so merry that Mr. Catesby sang."

The most interesting thing about Catesby's description of the largest white-bill woodpecker is what he says about the Native Americans' relationship with the bird: "The bills of these Birds are much valued by the Cannola Indians, who made Coronets of 'em for their Princes and great warriors, by fixing them round a Wreath, with their points outward. The Northern Indians having none of these birds in their cold country, purchase them off the Southern People at the price of two, and sometimes three, Buckskins a Bill." Apparently ivory-billed woodpeckers have been getting hammered by humans as long as Homo sapiens has been present in the New World.

If Mark Catesby did plagiarize John Lawson's work, he eventually received his just reward. Several years after Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands was published, the famed Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (who invented the modern binomial taxonomic system) lifted freely from the work and formally described and named the bird (which he had never seen), basically claiming its discovery for himself.

Another ivory-bill seeker worth noting is Alexander Wilson, a person I feel close to in a way. A bronze statue of Wilson, about three feet high and set on a white wooden pedestal, sits in an out-of-the-way hallway on the second floor of the Lab of Ornithology's new building. I see him almost every morning as I walk into the upstairs bird observatory to check for waterfowl that have newly arrived on Sapsucker Woods Pond. Like Hamlet contemplating Yorick's skull, Wilson stands in a thoughtful pose, silently regarding a dead bird he holds in his hand — a bird he had no doubt recently blasted with his trusty flintlock musket. You see, like most early ornithologists, Wilson was a confirmed bird whacker. He always went into the field with a gun instead of the binoculars that birders carry today. In the early nineteenth century, many of the birds of North America were not yet known to science, so almost anything held the potential for discovery. Wilson was also a wildlife artist, so he needed specimens to help him draw the birds accurately. But his bird illustrations tend to have a rather lifeless look — not surprisingly, I suppose, since most of them were drawn from dead birds.

Wilson, who immigrated from Scotland, had been a weaver and a would-be poet before fleeing his native land and coming to America. It seems that his political verse offended too many prominent people. He arrived here in 1794 and struggled for a few years as a teacher and surveyor. In a letter to a friend in 1804, he said he intended to make a collection of North American birds, because watching birds had become his chief comfort in life, "a sort of rough Bone that amuses me when sated with dull drudgery." Four years later, he published the first volume of his American Ornithology — the first comprehensive account of North American bird life, based on his observations of almost three hundred species.

Despite his bird-killing ways, Wilson had a big heart, which he often wore on his sleeve. I still choke up when I read about the copious tears he shed at the grave of Meriwether Lewis: "That brave soldier, that amiable and excellent man, over whose solitary grave in the wilderness I have since shed tears of affliction, having been cut off in the prime of his life, I hope I shall be pardoned for consecrating this humble note to his memory, until a more able pen shall do better justice to the subject." (Lewis had brought Wilson some newly discovered birds to paint when he returned with William Clark and the Corps of Discovery from their epic exploration of the American West.)

One of Wilson's great yarns involved an ivory-billed woodpecker he shot a few miles from Wilmington, North Carolina. The bird was only slightly injured, so Wilson got the bright idea to keep it as a pet, so he could study it and illustrate it from life at his leisure. The bird had other ideas. Upon its capture, the woodpecker "uttered a loudly reiterated and most piteous note, exactly resembling the violent crying of a young child, which terrified my horse so as to nearly cost me my life."

Wilson drove his wagon twelve miles south to Wilmington, but as he went down the main street, the ivory-bill started its pitiful caterwauling again, drawing everyone within earshot ("especially women") to their doors and windows with alarmed looks, as though a small child were being tortured. Ignoring them, he drove on.

When he arrived at an inn, Wilson decided to play a little joke on the landlord and a few bystanders. "The landlord came forward, and a number of other persons who happened to be there, all equally alarmed at what they heard," he wrote. "This was greatly increased by my asking whether he could furnish me with accommodations for myself and my baby. The man looked blank and foolish, while the others stared with still greater astonishment. After diverting myself for a minute or two at their expense, I drew my Woodpecker from under the cover, and a general laugh took place."

A short time later, though, the joke was on Wilson. He left the bird loose in his hotel room while he arranged to have his horse stabled and cared for. When he returned, less than an hour later, the bird had nearly destroyed one wall of the room in its efforts to escape. "He had mounted along the side of the window, nearly as high as the ceiling, a little below which he had begun to break through. The bed was covered with large pieces of plaster; the lath was exposed for at least fifteen inches square, and a hole, large enough to admit the fist, opened to the weather-boards; so that, in less than another hour, he would certainly have succeeded in making his way through."

Wilson needed to go out again, this time to find grubs to feed his unwilling pet. "I wished to preserve his life," he wrote, "[so I went] off in search of suitable food for him." To keep the bird from escaping or further wrecking the wall, he tied a string to its leg and attached the other end to the leg of a beautiful mahogany table. When he returned from his grub hunt, he found another surprise waiting: "As I reascended the stairs, I heard him again hard at work, and on entering, had the mortification to perceive that he had almost entirely ruined the mahogany table to which he was fastened, and on which he had wreaked his whole vengeance."

The ivory-bill died a few days later, much to Alexander Wilson's dismay. "While engaged in taking the drawing, he cut me severely in several places, and, on the whole, displayed such a noble and unconquerable spirit, that I was frequently tempted to restore him to his native woods," he wrote. "He lived with me for three days, but refused all sustenance, and I witnessed his death with regret."

The next in a long line of distinguished ivory-billers was the great man himself, John James Audubon, who saw dozens of the birds on his trips through the South in the early nineteenth century and wrote this colorful description: "I have always imagined, that in the plumage of the beautiful Ivory-billed Woodpecker, there is something very closely allied to the style of colouring of the great Vandyke. The broad extent of its dark glossy body and tail, the large and well-defined white markings and the brilliant yellow of its eye, have never failed to remind me of some of the boldest and noblest productions of that inimitable artist's pencil."

But even during Audubon's life (1785–1851), the ivory-bill had started its perilous downward spiral, owing largely to habitat destruction. This was a bird that thrived in vast tracts of virgin timber, where there were always enough dead and dying trees to attract its favorite grubs. The great trees across the South were being felled en masse to feed an insatiable lumber industry, especially after the Civil War.

Another unfortunate factor in the demise of the ivory-bill and other rare birds in the nineteenth century was the fad of collecting birds. Bird collectors were not an untrained assemblage of backwoods hunters who shot whatever they happened to stumble upon for the dinner table. They were experts and included many prominent ornithologists. They specifically targeted threatened birds — the rarer, the better — to add to their collections, like philatelists chasing a rare postage stamp. And they had enough knowledge of the natural history of these birds and the location of their habitats to significantly harm some species that were already perilously close to extinction.

Mark V. Barrow, Jr., examines this dilemma in A Passion for Birds, his excellent history of the early days of the American Ornithologists' Union. Barrow writes, "Faced with the impending extinction of [the Carolina parakeet] and other species, the taxidermist William T. Hornaday's urgent advice reflected the dominant ethos of the culture of collecting: 'Now is the time to collect.'" So the very rarest birds were the ones most ruthlessly sought.

Even the great ornithologist Frank Chapman, the famed director of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, collected some critically rare birds — in his case, Carolina parakeets. He sought the birds in their final stronghold in Florida and finally located a flock in March 1889. He shot three adults and one young parakeet. Then, a couple of days later, he bagged five more specimens. In his journal that night he wrote, "Now we have nine specimens and I shall make no further attempt to secure others, for we have almost exterminated two of the three small flocks which occur here, and far be it from me to deal the final blows. Good luck to you poor doomed creatures, may you live to see many generations of your kind."

But just two days later he found another flock, one he believed was the last in the area, and his noble intentions crumbled. He wrote afterward, "Good resolutions like many other things are much easier to plan than to practice. The parakeets tempted me and I fell; they also fell, six more of them making our total fifteen."

Chapman was later to become a major conservationist and a champion in the fight to save herons, egrets, and other wading birds then being slaughtered by the thousands to decorate women's hats. He was one of the founders of the Audubon Society. Was he perhaps trying to assuage a guilty conscience? Things were no better for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Even respected scientists, who knew what a devastating effect their actions were having on these species, were not immune to the lure of rare bird specimens and used their intimate knowledge of the birds to hunt them down. An 1890 picture of the renowned ornithologist William Brewster shows him looking like a hillbilly, with a full shaggy beard and a floppy felt hat, sitting on a scow on Florida's Suwannee River with a freshly shot ivory-bill on his lap. Frank Chapman sits a few feet away, gently cradling a doublebarreled shotgun.

By 1920, no one had seen any ivory-bills for several years, and many ornithologists believed that the species was extinct. When people did report seeing ivory-bills, they were not believed. The problem is that to the untrained eye, the common pileated woodpecker, another large, crested hammerhead, looks like an ivory-bill. Unless the person reporting was a well-respected ornithologist, he or she might be branded a fool, a liar, or a kook — a situation that, sadly, is even truer today than it was in the early years of the last century.

But then, in the spring of 1924, the bird experienced the first in a series of miraculous resurrections. Arthur Allen and his wife, Elsa, who were traveling in Florida, checked out an alleged ivory-bill sighting and managed to locate an active nest. Allen had no wish to collect the birds. "Since it is our belief that more is to be gained from a study of the living bird than from a series of museum specimens, we refrained from collecting the birds and planned our itinerary so as to spend the greater part of the following month studying them," he wrote. To avoid placing undue stress on the birds, which for all he knew might be the last breeding pair on the planet, he didn't set up camp next to them but stayed in town instead. The word was out, though. One day while he was away, a couple of local collectors shot the pair — legally. And so the ivory-billed woodpecker once more crossed into the nether regions between existence and extinction.

The next time the ivory-bill reared its beautiful head was in the early 1930s, in a huge tract of virgin timber along Louisiana's Tensas River. Mason Spencer, a country lawyer and state legislator from the wilds of northeastern Louisiana, was visiting the director of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at his headquarters in Baton Rouge. At one point the director asked him how the moonshine was in his area. "One of our game wardens must be drinking it," he said, "because he says he sees ivory-bills there."

"He's right. I've seen them myself," replied Spencer.

Incredulous, the director drew up a collecting permit for Spencer and challenged him to prove it. A short time later, Spencer came back with a freshly shot male ivory-bill and, as legend has it, flung it down on the director's desk.

From there the story returns to Cornell University, where Arthur Allen was still smarting about what had happened in Florida nearly a decade earlier. He had thought he would be able to make the first in-depth natural history study of these birds, but his hopes had been dashed by the bird collectors. If the stories coming out of Louisiana were true — if there really was a small remnant population of ivory-bills hanging on deep in the Louisiana bayou — he might get a chance to study them after all.


Excerpted from "The Grail Bird"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Tim Gallagher.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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

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