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Thursday, November 21, 2013

THE GRAIL BIRD – a Cranky Book Report

THE GRAIL BIRD – a Cranky Book Report
A couple of months ago, Frog (bfff - best friend from forever) lent me a book.  Frog knows I am an admirer of birds, something I inherited years ago from my mom.  I am not a “Birder” or even an amateur bird watcher.  I recognize a few species, more probably than most people, but I am really mostly just an admirer of birds.  With this in mind, Frog recommended and lent a book to me.

“The Grail Bird”

Hot on the trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

By: Tim Gallagher

Among his many occupations, Frog used to be a high school teacher, and he currently teaches an occasional course at a local college.  When a college professor lends you a book, it is not just a book, it is an assignment.  I had to read this book, and I expect to be quizzed on it.

The book is not an easy, casual read.  It is not James Patterson or Dean Koontz, the only authors I’ve read in the last three years (Except for the NYT’s best seller “King Peggy” written by my cousin Eleanor Herman…plug plug.) Frog told me I would like it and so it became a must read.

I have to say, he was right.  Although a bit dry, it is a fascinating read. 

The grail bird is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  It is the largest of all North American woodpeckers.  It has also been considered extinct by most ornithologists for over forty years. The book recounts the efforts of many bird enthusiast and experts in finding and proving the existence of the Ivory-bill. 

The Ivory-bill requires a very specific habitat once found in the south east United States.  It lives in swamps with large old growth Cyprus trees.  These trees, once over one hundred feet high and nine feet around have all but been eradicated by the saws and axes of loggers.  With almost no adequate habitat left, the Ivory-bill has also disappeared; it was last documented to scientist’s satisfaction in 1967.

The author recounts his and others search for this elusive bird, intent to prove its existence so that steps can be taken to preserve habitat and protect the species.  

The searchers encounter many difficulties and hardships in their bird tracking.  Perhaps the most interesting problem they encountered was in proving their sightings (which are still not confirmed and fully accepted.)  If their proof of the bird’s existence were not absolutely undeniable, they would be branded as hacks much like those who are out to prove the existence of Bigfoot.  If they find conclusive evidence of the bird, they have to be careful to not give away its location to the wrong people.   Birders are enthusiastic and relentless.  Hordes of avid birders out to add the near extinct Ivory-bill to their personal tally of confirmed species sighted might swarm upon the sighting area disturbing and threatening the existence of the bird they want to protect. 

A thought that struck me in reading this book is how much money and time was spent to confirm the existence of a bird that by its very habitat would be seen by only the most extreme and avid birder or scientist.  Suppose it is not extinct, how much effort should be expended to assure its continued existence?   Will we spend millions of dollars to buy up land and keep it pristine and untouched so a couple of birding nuts might add the bird to their sightings?  Will we approve large grants to scientists to research the bird’s habits?  Should we pay for Park Rangers to patrol the area and keep out crowds or even worse, poachers?

If the Ivory-bill Woodpecker does exist, how does that enrich anyone’s life?  Shouldn’t the money and time used to find and then preserve this illusive bird be better spent feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless or curing cancer?

Perhaps; but that is what makes our species special.  We are concerned with our environment.  While some disturb it, others seek to restore it.  No other species cares about the environment around them.   When the balance of nature changes, a dominant species will prevail over all others; often to its own detriment. 

Humans are often responsible for altering the balance of nature.  Sometimes we change it irrevocably.  Sometimes we recognize our opulence and attempt to correct our ways. 

Just as a great work of art is worth large sums of money to preserve and protect, great works of God such as the Ivory-bill Woodpecker are worth protecting.  I will probably never see the actual Mona Lisa.  I will probably never see an Ivory-bill Woodpecker in the wild. 
Somehow knowing they  exist is enough for me.


  1. Me too Joe.

    Just knowing they still exist is somehow magical.

  2. We should leave Big Foot alone, too.
    Just knowing he exists is more than enough for me.

  3. I love your comment that you are an admirer of birds. That would be me also. I love seeing them, I love hearing them (well most of them) but I have no idea what kind they are. And I agree that we need to preserve great works of any kind. Just because I may not appreciate or understand them does not mean they should be destroyed.

  4. i see the ivory-billed as a symbol of hope that mankind can't extinguish everything. (hopefully)

  5. An interesting Post, Joe, and an even better question. I hope they're still with us, and hope that will be true forever. But the hungry, the homeless....with limited funds to make an impact, what should we do? I wish there was a simple answer.


  6. I guess it can be argued that only man is foolish enough to destroy his environment. Sorry if I missed it but why is this called The Grail Bird, because it's as elusive as the Holy Grail?

  7. I've heard about the ivory billed on and off over the years. I do hope the hunt is successful. Like the spotted owl, so what if humans are inconvenienced for a time.

  8. For some people, knowing they exist is enough to then set off and see it for themselves - why go to the moon? Why climb Everest? Why run a marathon? We each have different things that make us tick and drive us. As they say, everybody has a price, you just have to know the right currency.

  9. I, too, hope they're still with us. BTW, I read & enjoyed "King Peggy" before I knew YOU existed!!

  10. I didn't realise that you were a bird enthusiast Joe! Over the last few months of taking nature photos, I've come to love birds. I'm always listening out for different calls hoping that I might catch sight of a bird that I haven't yet photographed. I really would love it if these birds were still with us!

  11. Fascinating post, thank you. I'm now cheering for the ivory-billed woodpecker. I agree with TexWisGirl that it's a symbol of hope. Us humans are a complex lot.

  12. We occasionally see a pileated woodpecker around here, and hear one quite frequently. I always liked the woodpecker feet. Two toes forward, two toes back. So symmetrical.

  13. I love this post. Us humans, even though we destroy ecosystems, we can also nurture them and keep searching for unicorns. This gives us some magic in our lives. I think that is why we do things like this.