In Search of Birding's Holy Grail Obsessed birders searched the swampy woods of the southern United States for years, listening for the call of the Ivory-billed woodpecker. How was the bird finally found?
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In Search of Birding's Holy Grail

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In Search of Birding's Holy Grail

In Search of Birding's Holy Grail

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Success truly does have many fathers and, in this case, maybe even at least one mother, because it was a news conference that you don't see very often, yet scientists, bird watcher and the head of the Department of Interior all gathered to deliver some good news on an endangered species: the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The last confirmed sighting, which went way back, all the way back to 1944, well, it was spotted in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. And if you're a birder, you know about something called a life list. it's a running list of all the birds you have seen, and dedicated bird watchers will travel to the farthest corners of the globe to add a bird to their lists. No doubt thousands of people have paddled through the swamps of the Southern US, battling the flies, the mosquitoes and the wood rot, all hoping to add the ivory-billed woodpecker to their list.

And joining me now is one of the very few people now, probably, in the whole world who now has had the pleasure of seeing that woodpecker. Tim Gallagher is the author of "The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker," and that's hot off the presses this month. He's the editor in chief of Living Bird magazine and the director of publications at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. He joins us from his office at Cornell University.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Gallagher.

Dr. TIM GALLAGHER (Living Bird Magazine; Author, "The Grail Bird"): Oh, thanks, Ira. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: Exciting?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Oh, to say the least.

FLATOW: (Laughs) Life-changing?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Yes, every bit of it.

FLATOW: Tell us how. Tell--give us an idea--run us through the story of how you got there, what--how you got to be there to see it.

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, I've been interested in the ivory-bill for years; in fact, since the early 1970s. But it was just the last few years--I've been writing a book called "The Grail Bird," and I was doing research all over the South, like, tracking down people who claimed they'd seen one of these birds. Because these reports have been coming in for years, and usually people think they're like a Bigfoot sighting or something and they ignore them. But I thought, `Well, I'm going to look at these with an open mind and just see what happens.' And on one of these trips, I was checking out an ivory-bill sighting made by a kayaker, Gene Sparling, in eastern Arkansas, and I went there with my friend Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College, who goes on a lot of these trips with me, and we were going to spend a week out in the swamp, basically, paddling down the lengths of the bayou.

On the second day, about 1:15, an ivory-billed woodpecker flew right past the canoe in front of us at close range, and believe me, we almost fell out of the canoe. We just shouted `Ivory-bill!' at the same time, and immediately paddled over to the side and jumped out, and we were knee-deep in mud, slogging across fallen trees and branches, and it was just incredible. And after about 15 minutes of struggling like that and panting and everything, we sat down and we wrote up our field notes in great detail and drew sketches, and as soon as we got done, Bobby just let out a deep sigh and he said, `I saw an ivory-bill,' and he just started sobbing. And I couldn't even speak. It was...

FLATOW: Makes grown men cry.

Dr. GALLAGHER: It does. That was the moment. I mean, although it was really crazy last week, being up in Washington and being treated like one of the Mercury astronauts or something, I mean it was nothing to that moment in the swamp.



FLATOW: Is it true you scared the bird away with your screaming?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, that's what people like to tease me about, anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GALLAGHER: You know, the bird was swinging up like it was going to land on a tree, and I'm afraid that maybe I could have--maybe it would have landed and I could have taken a quick shot if I hadn't gotten so excited. But yeah, I wanted to make sure that Bobby also saw it, which--he saw the whole thing, but you never know. You don't want to be the only one who sees a bird like that and not have a witness.

FLATOW: Now...

Dr. GALLAGHER: Like I think we were probably--it's probably the first find since 1944 that two qualified observers had seen one at the same instant, and that made a big difference in how it was received.

FLATOW: Well, let me ask you that process, because I saw these grainy little pictures on TV. Somebody obviously had a camera, right, a little video camera?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, that was later.

FLATOW: That was later.

Dr. GALLAGHER: That was in the follow-up search.

FLATOW: I see.

Dr. GALLAGHER: I mean, I spent a few days with Bobby and Gene Sparling out in that swamp afterwards, looking for this bird, and we actually had some bad weather, where the wind was tearing through and branches were falling down. It was like being under a howitzer attack or something. So, you know, you're not going to spot any birds in that. So I finally came back, and I had to tell the director of the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell, John Fitzpatrick, about this, and, you know, I didn't know how it would be received. You know, he could have thought I was a quack or something, but, you know, I was hovering around his office, looking terrible, hadn't slept all night and, you know, he told me later he was afraid I was going to tell him I had an incurable disease, so that's--because I looked so bad.

But he took me in there and he grilled me for a long time, and he got a tape recorder. And, I mean, I was sitting in a chair with him facing around; it was like a cross-examination.

FLATOW: And you were close enough--how close were you to get a good look?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Oh, less than 70 feet.

FLATOW: Oh, no kidding!

Dr. GALLAGHER: We were really close, really close. I mean, it was--like, you couldn't have a better sighting. It just, like, slapped us in the face.

FLATOW: And so you really didn't need binoculars at that distance.


FLATOW: Wow. And is the spot now the holy grail? I mean is it going to be overrun with people going down to that swamp?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, they have--they're doing this managed access for that actual bayou where the...


Dr. GALLAGHER: ...sightings took place, and it's just researchers that are going in there now. And it's not causing much problem for the locals, because there are thousands of acres of other places where they can fish and hunt and everything. Just...

FLATOW: You haven't signed your National Geographic contract yet to go down there...

Dr. GALLAGHER: No. Well...

FLATOW: you could, like, show us the bird?

Dr. GALLAGHER: A lot of people would like to see it. Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. And, of course, there can't be just one bird, right? It would not be able to survive if there were just one bird.

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, I mean, technically, it could survive. But, I mean, the odds of us stumbling upon the last ivory-bill in existence are astronomical; and even stumbling upon the last one in that 550,000 acres of woodland around there is pretty, you know, slim. So I'm sure there are at least a few there. And this--I think now we're going to have to start looking at some of these sightings more seriously in other parts of the country--you know, South Carolina, Florida, east Texas and places like that where people have been reporting them--Georgia. There could be just a really small population that's been existing basically under the radar for years.

FLATOW: But species are lost and found all the time. Why such a big fuss? You know, you say you got the royal treatment, even better than the astronauts.

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, it wasn't better, but it reminded me of "The Right Stuff," you know?

FLATOW: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Over a bird. I mean, yeah--I mean, why do you think this has captured the imagination so much? Is it really a--to those of us who've not, you know, seen the bird, is it really that spectacular?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, besides being beautiful, it is spectacular.


Dr. GALLAGHER: It's much more spectacular than a pileated woodpecker, which is what people sometimes confuse with it. It's beautiful, deep black in color; it flies swiftly and straight, and it's become such an iconic bird. It's a symbol of everything we've lost when they cut all those huge trees. I mean, people don't realize what it used to be like in those Southern bottomland swamps before they were clear-cut. You know, Teddy Roosevelt wrote in 1907 about a trip he'd taken down there, you know, hunting bears, and he talks about these trees--like nothing else in the East. You'd have to go all the way to the great redwoods to see trees that compared with these, the cypresses and huge, massive oaks. And yet they were all cut down--and Roosevelt even saw three ivory-bills in there when he was there, so he was a bird watcher, too, so that was the thrill of his trip.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GALLAGHER: But that's all gone.

FLATOW: Yeah. So there are fewer numbers surviving and fewer--do they need a special kind of tree to live in?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, they thrive most in the old-growth primeval forests, which are largely gone. So that's why there's only--that's why these birds largely disappeared over their range, 'cause by midcentury, 20th century, the South was pretty well clear-cut. And we talk about that like that was the bottleneck. If the birds somehow survived past that time, then there's hope, because the forests have been improving ever since, you know, in the South, growing bigger. And, you know, now that we've shown that at least one bird is there, if we can establish that there's a small population and find where it is and where they're breeding, I mean, we can really do a lot to preserve a lot of land and--so the birds will increase in numbers.

FLATOW: So ornithologists will go down and look for other ones. Will you try to capture...

Dr. GALLAGHER: Oh, definitely.

FLATOW: ...and tag them...


FLATOW: you can keep track of them, or what?

Dr. GALLAGHER: No. I mean, that--we certainly wouldn't be doing anything like that in the near future. It's more like just establishing where the birds live. I mean, we haven't found a nest or even a roost hole; we've just seen--we've never seen more than one bird at a time, and that's always been in transit and, you know--except David Linow of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He got that wonderful video. I mean, it's blurry, but it's got all the field marks of the ivory-bill. And we went to tree where the bird took off from, and we photographed it and measured it, and that's really the basis of the article in Science.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GALLAGHER: And it's great that we have that. You know, scientists need something tangible that they can look at and measure, or it's not real. So all we had before that was eyewitness testimony.

FLATOW: Can you find a nest that would look like one, you know, now that you know to look for one?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, we've found good-looking cavities that, you know, are the right size and shape...


Dr. GALLAGHER: ...for an ivory-bill, and we've staked out people at them and nothing has shown up. So we're continuing to search but, I mean, these swamps are amazingly dense. I mean, well, this time of year, they're almost impossible to look around because they're all--the foliage is thick. It's like a jungle. But we like to look in the winter and early spring, and actually, that's when the ivory-bills are more active and vocal, so we have a better chance of finding them then. But so far, we've only been--and we've had 40 to 50 people down their scouring this area, and we've only fairly scratched the surface, like 8 percent of the areas that we want to check. So there's a lot more work to do.

FLATOW: And you try not to scare them off this time.

Dr. GALLAGHER: Oh, right, right. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, yeah. I'll try not to get as excited next time.

FLATOW: Did they believe you when you screamed out `Ivory-bill!'? You say they saw it also, your g...

Dr. GALLAGHER: No, that was my friend Bobby Harrison.

FLATOW: Bob--oh, he screamed.

Dr. GALLAGHER: Yeah, it was just the two of us.

FLATOW: Yeah. Oh, I see.

Dr. GALLAGHER: We--it was--we said it at the same time.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. So you want credit for both seeing it at the same time. OK. Can you stay with us a little longer?


FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a little time and come back and talk more with Tim Gallagher. He's author of "The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker," hot off the presses this month.

It's lucky, I guess, Tim, your book's coming out just as the bird was found.


FLATOW: That...

Dr. GALLAGHER: Yeah, well, at least I have--well, it's been 14 months since we first saw the bird, so I had a lot of time to...


Dr. GALLAGHER: ...write it, and so that's good.

FLATOW: All right. Stay with us. He's also editor in chief of Living--magazine and director of publications at the Cornell Laboratory on Ornithology. Quick break; coming back, taking your questions. Don't go away. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow, and this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking the first part of the hour about finding the ivory-billed woodpecker with Tim Gallagher, who's author of "The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker." 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Let's go to George in Arkansas. Hi, George.

GEORGE (Caller): Hi. How's it going?


GEORGE: I called up--I live in another area of the state, southern Arkansas, that is--you know, there's no people. And I saw an ivory-bill a few years ago and I'd be happy to, off the air, talk to the gentleman and can give him an idea where it was. I can actually take him to the tree, if...

FLATOW: No kidding.

GEORGE: Pretty much. Yeah.

FLATOW: Tim, are you looking for people who can do that?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Sure. I'm always looking for new sightings.

GEORGE: Well, it's on the Ouachita River, and if you look at the Ouachita River, especially on the--it's not populated, and there's nothing there except, you know, a lot of wild, crazy people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And they're easy to see. Tim...

GEORGE: Yeah, boy. They'd have a hell of a good time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Tim, is there a Web page that people can actually, you know, log on to and say, `I've got a place for you to find'? Is that thing created yet?

Dr. GALLAGHER: Well, you know, we don't have that right now, but you can go to and, you know, I think there's something on there they can look up. Or they can call the Lab of Ornithology at (607) 254-BIRD.

FLATOW: OK. Then that's--you got that down, George?

GEORGE: No. Hold on. I was just standing here listening to my--now what was that?

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, you can call his lab...


FLATOW: ...(607) 254-BIRD.

GEORGE: (607) 25...

FLATOW: 254-BIRD. Easy one to remember.

GEORGE: 254-BIRD. Almost as is yours.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks--yeah.

GEORGE: Same thing.

FLATOW: That's a lot. Have a good time watching.

Dr. GALLAGHER: Keep watching.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's see if we can get another phone call in here from--let's go to Jack in Charlotte, Michigan. Hi, Jack.

JACK (Caller): Hey, Ira. Hey, Tim, congratulations. That's a...

Dr. GALLAGHER: Oh, thank you.

JACK: ...great find.


JACK: Ira, you said something a few minutes ago which kind of piqued my curiosity or my interest. You said, `Why is this such a big deal?' or something to that effect. I think it's because, you know, so many regular folks can be birders and get excited over finds like this, just on their own. I mean, last night I saw a rose-breasted grosbeak for the first time at my feeder, and we just went ape in our household. So something like this which...


JACK: You know, we've all been told the ivory-bill's extinct, and to just know that they exist is just way cool for the average consumer out there, the average birder. And...

FLATOW: Yeah. I get--if I could just get a hummingbird to drop by my back yard, I'd be a happy guy. But I c--you know, like--any--but that's my problem. You're right. I guess if you're a bird watcher, this is a very exciting thing.

JACK: And...

FLATOW: Did you have a question, Jack?

JACK: Yeah, I did. What--now that we know that there's at least a nominal or a very, very small population out there, what can we do as a society to improve the habitat so that they can come back, and pull them off the brink of extinction? And, you know, I think it's a national treasure that we need to start working towards--to protect.

Dr. GALLAGHER: Yeah, I agree with that, and we're already doing a lot. I mean, The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas has been trying to buy up land or option land, you know, so that--to preserve the trees on it and to expand the refuge, the White River and the Cache River Refuge down there. And I think that's a good start. I mean, it's amazing that the secretary of the Interior and the secretary of the Agriculture say they're coming up with $10 million to start this going, and so it's great.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you, Tim, and thank you...

Dr. GALLAGHER: And it's helpful.

FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to join us today.

Dr. GALLAGHER: OK. Thank you.

FLATOW: Tim Gallagher, author of "The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker."

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