Ivory-billed woodpecker: Ornithology’s holy grail

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Birdman Gallagher recounts the day of discovery

Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison almost flopped into the mud of Arkansas’ Bayou de View in their haste to get out of the canoe. They crashed through the undergrowth after the flashing black and white bird that was threatening to vanish among the huge cypresses.
After dashing across the soggy ground, through brambles, and over fallen logs, the bird finally disappeared. Gallagher stood stunned. Harrison fell down on a log, overcome by emotion.

“I saw an ivory-bill!” he said.

After a half-century of apparent extinction, in February 2004 the ivory-billed woodpecker came back to life.

Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine and director of publications for Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology, told the tale of finding ornithology’s holy grail Thursday night (Oct. 6) to a packed house in the Geological Lecture Hall.

“It was just insane, the biggest adrenalin rush we’d ever had,” Gallagher said of the find. “This is really the most amazing thing that ever happened to me.”

The talk, “Rediscovering the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker,” was sponsored by the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH). The museum plans to mount its own ivory-billed exhibit, displaying both birds and a rare ivory-billed woodpecker nest from its collection.