The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
by Tim Gallagher
2005. 250 pages. (Hardcover)
From: the public library
In a nutshell:
In my National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, purchased in 2000, the entry on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker says the following:
Thought now to be extinct in North America . . . Unconfirmed sightings in recent decades in Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas undoubtedly have been smaller Pileated Woodpecker.
In 2004, after chasing down credible sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Tim Winchester and his friend Bobby Harrison sight the bird in the swamplands of Arkansas. The Grail Bird tells the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the quest of Winchester and others to find it, and then what happens after the confirmed sighting in 2004.
The first chapter of The Grail Bird sets out the story of loss: the path that led the ivory-billed woodpecker to its declared extinction. One of the saddest parts for me to read was how early ornithologists used their knowledge of birds to kill them for their taxidermy collections. The rarer the bird, the more sought-after it became. When a bird neared extinction, one taxidermist urged, “Now is the time to collect.”
After recounting the history of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Gallagher then launches into a description of his project. A wildlife photographer who works for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Gallagher has traveled widely to study birds around the world. He decided, along with his friend Bobby Harrison, to follow up on all the credible-sounding sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker and see what they could see.
What I love about the book is that Gallagher’s passion for birds, and particularly the ivory-billed woodpecker, is contagious. There is an awe associated with it, not just because it was thought to be extinct, but because of its own qualities. It was a large woodpecker – the size of a crow – and had distinctive white markings. It flew fast and straight. The ivory-billed woodpecker was sometimes nicknamed the Lord God Bird because people would say when seeing it “Lord God, what a bird!”
But the book is about so much more than just the ivory-billed woodpecker. It is also about the people who are bound together by seeing it. Gallagher writes as warmly about people as he does about the birds and he introduces readers to some passionate, intrepid characters.
Gallagher laments the destruction of the primeval southern forests, which he calls “one of the greatest environmental tragedies in the history of the United States.” Indeed, reading interviewed people’s accounts of the great forests, and of the disappeared bayou cultures, I felt almost personally stricken by the loss.
The author also speaks reprovingly about how the scientific community reflexively mocked sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, even sightings that were backed by respected ornithologists. These sightings were treated like those of Bigfoot or Elvis and careers were ruined by the skepticism.
Roughly the last half of the book describes the story of Gallagher’s particular sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker and the team of birders and scientists that seek to further confirm its existence afterward. It’s a suspenseful account complete with disorienting swampland and cottonmouth snakes – all rewarded by a glimpse here, a fuzzy video there, of the grail bird.
As I’ve probably made clear, I loved this book. It’s an incredible story well-told and the story is not over yet. I will conclude with this video I found on youtube that uses Sufjan Steven’s song, “The Lord God Bird” as the background track.
(You can download the song for free via NPR’s website, who commissioned the song from the artist about the bird and the town that got put on the map due to its discovery.)