Reading up on the ivory-billed woodpecker
(published 8-11-05)

In downtown Chicago, across from my office building, there’s a natural history art gallery that specializes in the works of John James Audubon. For several months now the gallery’s front window has showcased the great painter’s rendering of the ivory-billed woodpecker. For me—and I wonder for how many others—it’s a daily reminder of the stunning news this spring that the iconic woodpecker had been rediscovered in a remote Arkansas swamp.

As a kid, I was fascinated by endangered species and recall saving a newspaper story about the ivorybill with the headline “Rakish Bird Bows Out.” I’m not sure what triggered the article, but it functioned like an official obituary. The last confirmed ivorybill sighting, after all, had been in 1944.

On April 29 I found myself clipping newspaper stories again, but these ones contained much happier news. Miraculous news, really. The ivorybill was back, and there was video to prove it. The New York Times and Chicago Tribune each gave it front page coverage. This was a story fit for mass consumption, not just birders.

Some wonderful follow-up articles have appeared this summer in the various birding and nature magazines. I especially enjoyed a piece in Audubon, written by Rachel Dickinson. She has an interesting perspective on the ivorybill rediscovery because her husband, Tim Gallagher, was among the first to see the bird in 2004. For more than a year, Dickinson had the goods but couldn’t deliver—she was sworn to secrecy along with the search team that followed up on the initial sighting.

Gallagher, meanwhile, is out with a book called “The Grail Bird” and I strongly recommend it. As editor of Living Bird, a magazine published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Gallagher’s credentials and writing skills are well established. Plus he is quite simply a great storyteller. After “The Grail Bird”—possibly my new all-time favorite bird book, surpassing Kenn Kaufman’s “Kingbird Highway”—I was even more intrigued by the ivory-billed woodpecker. The bird has a truly fascinating history and, now, a highly anticipated future.

Researchers will be spending a lot more time in the Big Woods region of Arkansas, trying to determine how many ivorybills exist. The territory is vast, and access is extremely difficult. That’s good for the species, of course, but tough on the people who want to help it. It’s important for them to know more so that conservation measures can be applied most beneficially. To keep up with the developing story, check out

Gallagher recently participated in an author’s panel at the Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago. I made a point to go see him. If I never see an ivory-billed woodpecker myself, I at least wanted to meet somebody who did. Less than four months ago, in my wildest dreams, I’d have never believed that would be possible.

Upcoming opportunities: For those interested in Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, the subject of my last column, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County will conduct free bird walks at the preserve on Sept. 8th and 10th. Details are online at – from the home page, click on Events. Or call (630) 933-7200.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Ill., resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at

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