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The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the…

The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (2005)

by Tim Gallagher

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1565113,624 (4.03)7



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I remember reading an article in The New Yorker seven years ago about the initial sighting of the widely-regarded- as-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker that sparked the Big Search. It was a fascinating article and it really resonated with me. However, with my mind being consumed by library school at the time, I soon forgot about it and moved on to the matters at hand. Fast forward to the present. Anxious to feed my ever-growing obsession with birds, I was combing the library stacks for bird books one day when I discovered this gem by Tim Gallagher, editor of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's publication Living Bird. Early on in the book, I experienced some doubt regarding Gallagher's ability to convey the riveting excitement of the ivory-billed search. However, he came through and pretty soon I was wrapped up in this gripping tale. While this is not high literature by any means (I am sure it was written to appeal to both readers and non-readers alike), it effectively describes a monumental event in ornithological history (and beyond), that of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The bird has been a symbol for decades of not only the essence of wildness, but also the short-sightedness of logging companies, government agencies, early ornithologists, and ordinary citizens when it comes to defending and protecting wildlife. For many people proving the existence of this bird means proving that not all is completely lost yet; we may still be able to do the right thing after all when it comes to sharing this planet with so many other species of life. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a good nature story, a good mystery, and an uplifting story of hope, all wrapped up in one single book. ( )
1 vote S.D. | Apr 5, 2014 |
Tim Gallagher's The Grail Bird is a rich trove of woodpecker lore. The author admits a lifelong fascination with the elusive giant woodpecker of southern hardwood swamps and his enthusiasm is contagious. Readers are treated to a whirlwind review of Ivorybill records from Jim Tanner's meticulous fieldwork in the Singer Tract in Louisiana in the 1930s to the more controversial sound recordings made by John Dennis in the Big Thicket of Texas in the 1960s and other more recent reports. Along the way we are introduced to two schools of thought … the skeptics who are certain there are no Ivorybills left to be found and the optimists who believe that birders just don't haunt the deep swamps where the shy, reclusive birds that have survived now take refuge. Although Gallagher, employed by the prestigious Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, understands that by casting his lot with the optimists he may be lumped with the Bigfoot chasers and "Nessie" nuts, he gamely forges ahead.

In the first half of the book, Gallagher revisits past Ivorybill haunts across the south and interviews the dwindling few who can make a credible case for having seen an Ivorybill in the wild. Upon returning to New York, Gallagher learns of an intriguing sighting by a lone kayaker deep in the Arkansas bottomland swamp. Predictably, he turns around and heads south again. He quickly assembles a small search party and is soon trailing the kayaker among the cypress and tupelo. The second half of the book recounts Gallagher's search for the grail bird. His narrative moves quickly (especially for a description of what is essentially sitting and waiting for a bird to appear) and meanders into examinations of the implications of extinction and refinding an extinct bird, the role of skepticism in fieldwork and ornithology, and the importance of acknowledging how little we actually know about how birds make their way in a world so dramatically shaped by man. A true quest story and recommended for birders or anyone interested in the relationship between humans and the creatures they have driven to extinction. ( )
1 vote tracyfox | Apr 1, 2009 |
Well written and it explains the rediscovery of the bird well. ( )
  historybuff17 | Sep 11, 2007 |
A fascinating and entertaining account of people in the South who routinely see Pileated (Oops, I mean Ivory-billed) Woodpeckers. Check out the article in Science by Bevier and Sibley and then check out the rebuttal. Holy controversy, Bat Man! ( )
  Sandydog1 | Jan 27, 2007 |
Pretty conventional and lacking much of the excitement that I hoped Gallagher's account of the rediscovery would have; but a must-read for Ivory-bill enthusiasts. ( )
  JBD1 | Jan 11, 2006 |
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For my wife, Rachel,
and my children, Railey, Clara, Jack and Gwendolyn
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I guess this story begins, at least for me, in an old white barn in a field in Ithaca, New York.
Page 164-

Andy and the others told us some funny stories about their adventure. One day as they were walking back to camp Andy noticed a long line of leaf-cutter ants, each carrying a tiny piece of brightly colored nylon fabric that looked vaguely familiar. When he got to camp, he saw thousands of ants swarming over his tent, tearing it apart and carrying it off, piece by piece.
Epilogue: pg 250 ... updates on the search will be available on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Web site, www.birds.cornell.edu and the Nature Conservancy's Web site www.tnc.org
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 061870941X, Paperback)

In April 2005, a startling announcement made national and international news: the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird thought to be extinct for nearly sixty years, had been sighted. The story behind this incredible discovery began more than a year earlier when, after a lengthy search, Tim Gallagher was one of the first people to see this iconic bird, the holy grail of birdwatchers. He persuaded the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology to mount a massive search for evidence of the bird's existence. The news was kept secret while field teams went to work and land was bought to conserve the ivory-bill's habitat. Gallagher's story reads like a mystery novel, and the subsequent conservation efforts provide hope and a lesson for our times.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:23 -0400)

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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 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 30 years after the fact--on their sightings. He meets a colorful array of characters, but in most cases, they are clearly decades too late. Then, when the two speak to an Arkansas kayaker who saw a mystery woodpecker the week before, the hunt is on. Their Eureka moment is the first time since 1944 that two qualified observers positively identify an ivory-billed woodpecker in the United States.--From publisher description.… (more)

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