September 21, 2005

Gallagher Speaks On Elusive Woodpecker

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Although not making as many headlines, late-night talk show appearances or magazine covers as your average celebrity, the ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, garnered a considerable amount of media attention last year. Tim Gallagher, editor in chief of Living Bird, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s quarterly magazine, was already in the midst of writing a book on the woodpecker when several people reported sightings of the supposedly extinct bird.

Gallagher, author of The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, published in May, gave a book talk yesterday evening at Mann Library as part of the Chats in the Stacks lecture series. He spoke both of the historical lure of the bird, as well as the current excitement surrounding the woodpecker’s “re-emergence.”

“Tim began writing about the bird several years ago,” said Janet McCue, director of Mann Library, as she introduced Gallagher to the audience. “Like a detective, he started to track the bird after sightings were reported.”

An award-winning author and photographer with a life-long interest in wilderness exploration, Gallagher’s passion has taken him to the Hinterlands of Iceland and to the swamps of Arkansas after news of the ivory-billed woodpecker’s whereabouts surfaced last year.

Gallagher explained that the original range of the ivory-billed woodpecker stretched as far north as Southern Illinois to Texas, and the birds were known to inhabit the bottomland forests of the South. The South was known for its “forests filled with wolves, bears and the ivory-billed Woodpecker,” Gallagher said. After the Civil War, however, logging companies destroyed large tracts of forest land in order to obtain wood, even after protests from conservation societies.

Gallagher noted that the president of one company at the time said outright, “we have no ethical considerations like you folks, we’re just money grubbers.”

Logging companies destroyed land vital for the survival of the ivory-billed woodpecker. In the early 1920s, museums warned ornithologists that the species was becoming rare.

“They said, ‘well, the birds are going extinct, better get your specimen,'” Gallagher said.

“Ordinarily, collecting doesn’t do any harm, but in this case, it [led to] the detriment of the species.”

In 1924, ornithologist Arthur A. Allen located a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers, and the news made headlines in local newspapers.

“This is the high point of my life,” Allen was reported to have said. “I did what [people said] could never be done; I saw the ivory-billed woodpecker.”

“Taxidermists came out and shot the birds,” Gallagher said, ” and the birds crossed back over to extinction.”

By the 1930s a tract of land in northeast Louisiana that was owned by the Singer sewing machine company was the last known stronghold of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Gallagher gave a brief overview of the lives of various ornithologists, some of whom were from Cornell, who went on several expeditions in the region known as the Singer Tract, in the hope of finding one of the rare birds. Among those researchers who conducted painstakingly meticulous field studies in the hopes of locating the ivory-billed woodpeckers was Peter Paul Kellogg, a pioneer in sound recording technology who managed to record the first sounds of the woodpecker. Accompanying Arthur Allen, Kellogg took two huge trucks from Ithaca to Louisiana.

James Tanner, a Cornell ornithologist whose Louisiana expedition was sponsored by the National Audubon Society, wrote at the time, “-the primitiveness of the area was its greatest charm. All the animals that had ever lived there in the memory of man – still lived there.”

A campaign to rescue the Singer Tract forest was initiated by John Baker of the Audubon society, and a message was even dispatched to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but to no avail.

“The environmental movement had no muscle,” Gallagher explained.

The last universally-accepted photographs of the bird were taken in 1948 in Cuba by John V. Dennis and Davis Compton, after which the ivory-billed Woodpecker was declared extinct.

In May 1971, however, a mysterious man contacted George Lowery of Louisiana State University about photographs that he had taken in the Atchafalaya Swamp of Southern Louisiana that supposedly depicted the extinct woodpecker. Lowery went to the site and saw excavation marks that might have belonged to an ivory-bill. Lowery took the pictures to the annual meeting of the American Ornithological Union and was laughed at, while the pictures were declared to be fraudulent.

The man who took the pictures, however, “didn’t want any one to know his name – he didn’t want the Feds to impound the land,” Gallagher said. But as Gallagher set out to do his own research for the book, he couldn’t resist the thought of locating this man.

“I [wanted] to find this guy,” Gallagher said. “What a character for my book.”

Gallagher eventually located the man, Fielding Lewis, and set up a meeting with him in Louisiana. “‘I’ll meet you at this Cajun restaurant,'” Gallagher recounted Lewis saying. Gallagher was “so excited, so curious at that point. I had this big fantasy [of Lewis].” With his expedition partner Bobby Harrison at his side, the two stayed “sitting in the parking lot, waiting for all the cars, for Fielding Lewis – a white Chrysler New Yorker [pulled up]” and out emerged Lewis, “a big huge guy smoking a cigar – a character out of Tennessee Williams.”

“He was a great storyteller,” Gallagher said. He said that Lewis told him that “he was out training his Labrador [in 1971] with a camera put on top of his head and started snapping pictures” of the woodpecker. Gallagher mentioned that the pictures Lewis had provided the professor almost ruined his career; the Society thought that the birds in the picture were taxidermy birds.

“‘Now where in hell would I get stuffed ivory birds?,'” Gallagher quoted Lewis as saying.

In 2003, Mary Scott, an ivory-billed woodpecker searcher, posted a note on her website about a sighting in Arkansas that seemed promising. After reading the post, Gallagher said that it “was the first time I really thought that we might be on the trail of the bird.” Around the same time Gene Sparling also sent a note to Scott’s website about a sighting that he had had of the bird; Gallagher, after hearing about the latest update, “grilled Sparling for 40 minutes.”

On February 26, 2004, Gallagher, with Harrison, “waded through the muddy Bayou de View – launched a canoe in the muddy bayou, among 1,000-year-old cypress trees.” As they were charting the muddy waters, Gallagher recounted that a “bird just buzzed across [our] side view. We both yelled ‘ivory bill!’ which scared the hell of the bird. It was like a bucket of water on a hot day; the bird was just six to eight feet away.”

Gallagher next remembered jumping out of the canoe, “knees in mud, getting scratched and clawed by branches” by the bayou in order to take the now-famous field notes of the woodpecker sighting which have been reprinted in The New York Times.

After his exhilarating expedition, Gallagher said that he “finally realized that I had to go back to Cornell and tell the Director of the Lab that I’d seen Big Foot.” John Fitzpatrick, Director of the lab of Ornithology questioned and cross-examined Gallagher, before declaring that Gallagher had finally seen something.

Gallagher mentioned that his “15 minutes of fame came last April” when he was invited to a press conference at the Department of the Interior. “It was pretty funny … a couple senators, governors, the secretaries of the interior and agriculture both spoke – the Washington press corps was there. You think of them as cynical but they were so excited.” Gallagher then recounted how a reporter from Reuters asked, “Can’t we hear from someone who has seen the bird?” Gallagher went up to the podium and, as he described, “you could say anything and they’d be writing it down.” Gallagher and his expedition team will also appear on 60 Minutes with Ed Bradley la
ter this year.

While the media frenzy may have died down, the expeditions will still continue. Gallagher mentioned that there may be another trip to Arkansas which will be in the beginning of November.

The sighting of the bird has also led to some progress in the effort to grant protection to the bayou area. 5,000 acres have been closed off to accommodate researchers in their further quests to see the majestic ivory-billed woodpecker.

Archived article by Samira Chandwani
Sun Staff Writer