Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Quest

The Grail Bird: The Rediscovery of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
by Tim Gallagher

"The earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it...(Psalm 24:1)." That was the verse that kept circling through my head as I read this fascinating story of a few ornithologists who continued to seek proof of the existence of a beautiful, rare bird that most scientists had believed dead for more than half a century. Ivory-billed woodpeckers lived at one time in the deeply forested areas of the American south. They feasted off the larvae and grub worms found in the bark of trees. Most of us know the story of how their habitat was decimated by the logging industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When I read stories or articles like this, I get sad. Most of these situations of extinction could have been prevented if industry had just exercised a little restraint and carried out their operations in a more sustainable way.

Nevertheless, there were rumored sightings of the ivory bill now and then from the 1940s through the 1970s. The scientific community was dismissive of these claims, usually assuming that the birder who spotted the ivory-bill had actually seen a pileated woodpecker (which is similar to an ivory-bill but with some obvious differences that an expert birder would notice). Even distinguished ornithologists who thought they had spotted one were usually laughed at, and their peers would start thinking that they were crackpots. One can see how someone would become reluctant to make a claim of having seen one if it would be detrimental to his/her career. Ivory bill sightings came to have about as much credibility as sightings of Bigfoot or Elvis.

Nevertheless, there was a small group of bird enthusiasts who still believed in the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker. This small community put themselves through a tremendous amount of discomfort, gave up a lot of time, and incurred quite a bit of personal expense to follow up on rumors of ivory-bill sightings. Finally, in 2005, their efforts bore fruit. Gallagher and several of his credible colleagues finally spotted the bird deep in the swampy forests of Arkansas. The emotion that they describe when they finally saw this rare and magnificent creature is very moving.

Gallagher, who works for Cornell University editing their bird magazine, was able to get the resources and staff of the Cornell Ornithology Lab to get behind the search, and eventually they gathered enough visual and acoustic evidence to release the information to the public that at least a small number of ivory-bills still exists. The scientists had mixed feelings about this information getting out - they knew that it was important that people know the bird is still around, but they were concerned for the safety of the few that remain if thousands of birdwatchers descended on their habitat in hopes of seeing one. So far, the birding community (while thrilled that the species may yet survive) has been fairly measured in its response, and has not overwhelmed the forest searching for the ivory-bills.

Sometimes we get a second chance, an opportunity to make things right. It is still uncertain that there are enough ivory-billed woodpeckers remaining to form a viable breeding population. But if we can hold ourselves back and not chop down every tree and drain every swamp in existence, the bird and thousands of other endangered species will at least have a chance to survive. I am not some Luddite who thinks we should all go back to living in caves, but I do think we can do better. If we applied our intellect and creativity to preserving our planet and harvesting the world's resources in a way that allows all of creation to thrive, I have to believe that we would be inching closer to God's hopes for us.

Reverent Reader


At 8/20/09, 1:30 PM , Blogger cledster said...

As I understand it, the ivory billed woodpecker is known colloquially as the "Lord God Bird." The explanation: it's so beautiful that that's what people exclaimed on first sighting one. An internet search of that phrase offers a number of interesting resources to explore.

At 8/20/09, 2:15 PM , Anonymous Leslie said...

Cheryl - that interesting factoid is in the book!


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