"The Grail Bird"

Summer 2005

A book by Tim Gallagher, Editor-in-Chief, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker . . . ghost bird of the swamp. Big, beautiful, iconic, and mysterious, the bird is a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with our relationship to the environment. First plundered by nineteenth-century collectors and then a victim of massive habitat destruction, the bird has been sought for decades by those trying to determine whether the remarkable species still exists. Their findings have been met with ridicule and scorn; since the early twentieth century, most of the scientific world has believed that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct.

But when author Tim Gallagher set out to write THE GRAIL BIRD, he mounted his own quest for the elusive bird and discovered the amazing truth:

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker lives!


THE GRAIL BIRD (Houghton Mifflin, May 18, 2005) goes behind recent headlines to tell the story of Tim Gallagher's pursuit and discovery of the bird. Editor-in-chief of Living Bird, the flagship publication of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Tim Gallagher is a man who couldn't (and wouldn't) accept the idea that the ivory-bill was gone forever. He set out to learn everything he could about the bird, tracking down and interviewing dozens of people who claimed to have seen it, reading everything he could find on the bird, and finally hitting the swamps himself to explore potential ivory-bill habitats across the South. An irrefutable sighting by Gallagher and a colleague in February 2004 quickly led to the largest search ever mounted to find a rare bird, as researchers fanned out across the bayou to document this most iconic of birds.


"You never know when you get up in the morning what earth-shaking event might take place and change your life forever," Gallagher writes. For Tim Gallagher, it was reading a posting on a canoe club listserv about a strange woodpecker a kayaker named Gene Sparling had seen on a float trip down a remote bayou in eastern Arkansas. Less than two weeks after this sighting, Gallagher and his buddy Bobby Ray Harrison—art history professor, photographer, southerner, and dyed-in-the-wool ivory-bill chaser—hit the swamp with Sparling, canoeing through the bayou in search of the mystery bird. Tim and Bobby had their first ivory-bill sighting there.


In this unparalleled birding adventure story, Tim Gallagher takes us across the country, from the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, to the Big Thicket country of east Texas, the Atchafalaya Swamp in Louisiana, and the wild bayous of Arkansas. He brings to life figures from history, such as John James Audubon, Alexander Wilson, and Arthur A. Allen, and introduces characters like Mary Scott, a corporate lawyer turned ghost-bird chaser, and Fielding Lewis, the chairman of the Louisiana Boxing Commission, whose anonymous snapshots of the ivory-bill were met with skepticism in the 1970s. Readers join the expedition team along with celebrated naturalists, researchers, and the Lab of Ornithology's birding team, the Sapsuckers.


We have lost most of the vast old-growth forests of the South, and nothing symbolizes that loss more than the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. But the rediscovery of the bird symbolizes hope for these neglected and abused habitats, which with time and effort can be partially restored. We have been given one final chance to get it right, to save this bird and the bottomland swamp forests it needs in order to survive.


History comes alive in THE GRAIL BIRD, in which the expeditions of yesteryear take on present-day relevance in light of the ongoing quest. The dedication of the obsessed bunch of searchers is tangible, and Tim Gallagher's passion for the bird led not only to this book but to the rediscovery of a species. Readers of THE GRAIL BIRD will cheer for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker's miraculous survival, and they will hear the bird's distinctive kent calls in their imagination long after they finish the book.


Listen to an interview of Tim Gallagher on WSKG.


THE GRAIL BIRD is available at the Cornell Lab Birding Shop and
Wild Birds Unlimited at Sapsucker Woods (877) 266-4928.