It was like seeing a dinosaur. No, it was better. Dinosaurs are extinct. What Gallagher and Harrison saw decidedly was not. It was, they cried out in simultaneous amazement, an ivory-billed woodpecker.The ivory-billed woodpecker - the largest woodpecker in North America at 20 inches tall, with a 30-inch wingspan - had been presumed extinct, a victim of overhunting and massive habitat loss. The last confirmed sighting in the U.S. was in 1944 - a lone female.
Occasionally, though, there had been claims of sightings, none proven. Gallagher and Harrison were chasing down one of those claims that day in 2004. Their sighting, cautiously announced some months later, spurred a massive, new search for the "Lord God bird," so nicknamed, it's said, because when people first saw it, they exclaimed "Lord God, what's that!"
This new search soon produced even more alleged sightings and, most remarkably, a four-second snippet of blurred video showing a large black-and-white bird flying in the distance.
Was this conclusive proof that the ivory-billed woodpecker still lived? Some people think so; others do not. The search continues unabated in the remaining wetlands and hardwood swamp forests of the South.
Gallagher, meanwhile, has written a book chronicling the search and claimed re-discovery of "The Grail Bird."
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Q: What is it about the ivory-billed woodpecker that inspires this sort of interest? Why is this bird so much more compelling than other species?
A: I wonder myself sometimes. I think it's the sense of uniqueness. There is no other bird like the ivory-bill in the United States. It was so much grander and larger than other woodpeckers. It flies completely different, in straight lines like a duck rather than flitting about. It looks so much more striking, with deep black feathers and white lightning bolts that extend from the eyes down across the wings.
And it was powerful. A lot of woodpeckers need to wait until a tree is dead and rotting before attacking it. But ivory-bills can rip off huge strips of healthy tree bark. To Native Americans, the woodpeckers were a warlike symbol. Their tenacity and power were something to be admired.
But also, I think, there has been this persistent, pervading sense of loss, not just of the bird but for where it lived. Ivory-bills preferred these great, medieval forests of cypresses and other hardwoods. Towering old trees, the forests that (William) Faulkner and others wrote about. But between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War II, almost all of these forests were clear-cut. Millions of acres gone completely.
Q: It's said ivory-bills were a favorite of John James Audubon, the great bird-watcher and painter. Why?
A: Their beauty reminded him of (17th century Flemish painter Anthony) van Dyck, the glossy black feathers and the splash of color in the red crest and yellow eyes. He thought of them as the chief of the woodpecker clan.
Q: If the ivory-billed woodpecker, in fact, still exists, why has it been so difficult to get acceptable proof: an indisputable photo or footage? What is required?
A: I don't know. The bar always seems to be rising. In 1971, a man got some pretty decent pictures of a bird in east Texas, but people thought they were a hoax. They weren't good enough proof. It's the same with the videotape now.
The real problem is that we're only seeing one bird at time. It may be the same bird. It's very wary, which makes it doubly, triply difficult to film.
Q: What is the life span, reproductive cycle, the foraging needs of the woodpecker? At best, how many birds might be out there?
A: Nobody knows. I look at it this way. Habitat for ivory-bills was at its worst in the 1950s. Since then, habitat has gotten better. So the population that survived past the 1950s is probably increasing. The bird we saw was probably born in the 1990s, maybe this century. I'm guessing that these birds live 15 to 20 years, so it's a hopeful sign that there's been some successful breeding.
But the fact is, ivory-bills have never been well-studied. By the time scientists began studying them in the 1920s and 1930s, their populations were much reduced, and observations were drawn from just a few sites. The primary goal of the current search, which will continue through April, is to find an ivory-bill roost, a nesting hole.
Q: Why is that more important that getting conclusive imagery of the bird?
A: If you can find a roost, everything else will come naturally. Ivory-bills are not migratory. They're pretty faithful to a nest. If it's good habitat, they should come back to the same place again and again.
Plus, it's hard to look for them while they're moving about. It's estimated that each bird requires more than six square miles of foraging territory. That's a huge amount of space, so if you can find its nest, you can presumably wait for it to show up there.
There's been an enormous effort to look for these sites. People have methodically gone through portions of the forest, marking down all likely looking holes in trees, putting someone there for a few days to see if a bird shows up. So far, no luck.
Q. The woodpecker has become synonymous with the importance of preserving and restoring habitat. What happens if nothing else happens, if no one gets conclusive evidence soon of the bird's existence?
A. Well, I can tell you that we at Cornell are in it for the long term. If nothing happens this year, we'll be back looking next year. Whether others will marshal the same resources, I don't know.
In some ways, what's happened has generated more interest than I ever imagined. For birders, the ivory-billed woodpecker has always been the holy grail, but I had no idea other people would become so involved.
Whether that interest remains high, I can't say. But I think it's about more than the bird. My hope is that if the ivory-bill does exist, we can generate new awareness of what these swamp forests are and were. Maybe we can save enough of what's left, restore it, and my great-great-great-grandchildren will be able to see something I cannot.