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the grail bird
9 January 2006
A year ago, I was reading Jerome A. Jackson's In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker and feeling resigned to the extinction of the great bird. But of course the ivory-bill had already been found, even filmed, in Arkansas. This winter, it's been my great pleasure to read Tim Gallagher's book The Grail Bird, which recounts the rediscovery and verification of the ivory-bill's survival.
The pleasure, I'll admit, has been more ecological than literary. Gallagher's book is mostly a collection of birding anecdotes. And birding anecdotes, like hunting and fishing anecdotes, are more about campfire characters than about animals. There's little natural history in The Grail Bird – for that aspect of the ivory-bill, Jackson's In Search of is preferable. And Gallagher's cast of characters, though they must be great fun to pole around the bayou with, make less-than-compelling reading.
But Gallagher is very strong on the dynamics of birding. He feels for those observers who reported ivory-bill sightings between 1944 (when the species dropped off the academic radar) until 2004 (when Gallagher himself saw and heard the bird, and several other birders independently gathered evidence of its existence, evidence that is now too massive and too various to deny).
The most poignant elements of The Grail Bird are not the new sightings but the derided phantom appearances of the bird in the years when it was supposed extinct. In the 1960s, the eminent birder John V. Dennis claimed to have seen an ivory-bill in the Big Thicket of East Texas. Dennis had been the last person ever to take a picture of an ivory-bill, in Cuba in the late 1940s, so he presumably knew what he was looking at. But the scientific community dismissed his claims as wishful thinking or worse.
In 1971, LSU museum director George Lowery went public with snapshots of an ivory-bill, procured from an anonymous source. The photos showed an obvious ivory-billed woodpecker clinging to two different trees, at a great height from the ground. Too obvious for the American Ornithologists' Union, many of whose members concluded that Lowery was either hoaxing or being hoaxed.
The 1971 photos remain a puzzle, but Tim Gallagher tracked down Lowery's source, a flamboyant backwoodsman named Fielding Lewis. One would think that a hoaxer would crave publicity, but Lewis had remained incommunicado and unknown for 33 years, and would likely have gone to his grave unknown if the ivory-bill had not reappeared in Arkansas. If Lewis was shamming ivory-bill sightings, his motives are fairly non-existent. He maintains that he demanded secrecy so that the bird would remain undisturbed. Sounds like a conservationist ethic to me – though it could be an even deeper deception masquerading as one. Such is the weird marginal world of quasi-crypto-zoology.
There's no doubt that the ivory-bill survives in Arkansas, and there's hope it lives on in the less-accessible forests of Louisiana and Texas as well. So we're back to where we were sixty years ago – the greatest American bird is not extinct, but it is critically endangered. For once there's a second act in American life. Let's not blow it this time.
Gallagher, Tim. The Grail Bird: Hot on the trail of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.