Return of the King
In the Arkansas swamps, Tim Gallagher tracks the majestic ivory-billed woodpecker, until recently believed lost forever
The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
By Tim Gallagher
Houghton Mifflin, 272 pp., illustrated, $25
In a world where tell-all books seem to appear within days of major news events, it should not be a surprise that the astonishing announcement of recent ivory-billed woodpecker sightings in Arkansas is accompanied by a book billed as ''the true story of the rediscovery." Bird study, or at least ivory-billed woodpecker study, it seems, is mainstream.
I was as stunned as nearly everyone else with the news on April 28 that the ivory-billed woodpecker had been rediscovered. This spectacular bird is an icon whose ghostly spirit hangs over the remnants of Southern swamp forest that used to stretch from Texas to the Carolinas. The last undisputed sighting was in 1944, and in the decades since there has been a string of more or less believable reports. Thousands of bird-watchers have invested countless hours searching likely places and following up on tantalizing reports and rumors, but in all that time there were no verified and universally accepted sightings.
I, too, have searched for the ivory-billed, and like many other bird-watchers I have an insatiable appetite for information about the species. So when Tim Gallagher's sighting, and several others, were announced by the unimpeachable Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, with a video (brief and poor quality, but some tangible proof at long last), it was front-page news worldwide, and I was anxious to learn more.
Now the old questions like ''Could it still be out there?" have been augmented by questions like ''How did they find it?" or ''Why Arkansas?" and of course ''What was it like to see one?" Although the woodpecker's decline is covered in more detail in Phillip Hoose's book ''The Race to Save the Lord God Bird," and everything known about ivory-billeds, from habits to history to recent sightings, is covered in Jerome Jackson's authoritative ''In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker," I couldn't wait to read this book.
''The Grail Bird" by Gallagher begins with a brief summary of the bird's history, with some well-selected anecdotes from early ornithologists like John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson (including the classic story of Wilson's comically ill-conceived attempt to keep an ivory-billed woodpecker in his room at an inn).
This gives the reader enough background to understand the significance of what follows, and Gallagher quickly moves to the 1990s and describes some of the most recent reports through a series of adventures and interviews. This is not an exhaustive review, but the difference, and the strength, is that he focuses on the personal aspects of the stories. Gallagher engages people in conversation and by writing in dialogue tells us a lot about the habits and preferences of the woodpecker, as well as the people who live there, and the history of land use in the South. You'll learn a great deal about ivory-billed woodpeckers and conservation without even realizing it.
These chapters, with their firsthand information that can't be found in other ivory-billed accounts, are fascinating. I wish Gallagher could have returned to explore more of the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana, where Fielding Lewis reported the pair of birds in the 1970s, or spent some time exploring Louisiana's Pearl River, where David Kulivan reported a pair in 1999, or talked to people around Vicksburg, Miss., where several recent reports have originated. But this section ends abruptly. It makes a good foundation for what follows, but it leaves a lot of loose ends.
Of course the reason it ends abruptly is that Gallagher is only a month or two into his quest and has completed only a few interviews when he and Bobby Harrison follow up on an interesting report from kayaker Gene Sparling in Arkansas and see a bird that they identify as an ivory-billed woodpecker.
After this sighting the story shifts. The last third of the book is about the urgent and secret mission to refind the bird, get some proof that it exists, learn more about it, and save the habitat that it needs. These chapters are about days in the swamp sitting or paddling, the few sudden and always unexpected flashes of the woodpecker flying past, and the questioning after these quick sightings.
Gallagher does a good job of portraying the emotional intensity of the search, with the storyline following his and Harrison's evolving methods as they struggle to find the bird.
One of the consequences of Gallagher's telling of the human side of the story is to remind us how tenuous eyewitness accounts can be. The searchers, including Gallagher and Harrison, were so wrapped up in anticipation and emotion that it must have been very difficult for them to judge the sightings objectively. And many of the sightings were such brief and unsatisfying glimpses that I was left with more questions. Why is this bird so difficult to see? Where else does it go? The ivory-billed woodpecker remains ghostly and mysterious.
My only serious complaint about the book is its repeated jabs at the scientific community. Gallagher accuses ''them" (unnamed ornithologists) of bias, of not mounting effective searches for ivory-billeds, and of practicing what he calls ''the opposite of what true science should be." But true science, objective and unbiased, has to be based on concrete, testable evidence. Since 1944 there has been no conclusive evidence to go along with the sightings.
Some scientists took on the challenge. Reports were analyzed thoughtfully, legitimate debate took place, and in some cases extensive follow-up searches were mounted. Gallagher repeatedly minimizes these efforts and implies that scientists were anxious to declare the bird extinct. This is absolutely unfounded.
Gallagher's bias is clear. He is a self-described ''believer," and his emotional approach, powered more by faith than evidence, is the essential counterpart to science. I suppose it makes a better story when he can cast someone as the bad guy, but it is unfortunate that he has chosen ornithologists for that role. He can be triumphant in his success, but he has no grounds to attack the scientists for their scientific methods.
As long as readers are aware of Gallagher's bias, and take his statements as those of an impassioned birder on a quest, I can recommend the book. He has a pleasant, conversational style, with lots of friendly, informal grammar and self-deprecating anecdotes. I really like Gallagher and his friendship with Harrison. I enjoyed reading these stories and got the sense that it would be fun to travel with them on their easygoing jaunts through the South.
This book is a unique and personal perspective on what could be one of the most significant ornithological events of the last 100 years. It is an enjoyable and easy read, a good introduction to the ecology of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a powerful call for conservation, and an exciting birding adventure.
David Allen Sibley is the author and illustrator of ''The Sibley Guide to Birds" and several other field guides.