Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre
by Tim Gallagher
Atria Books, 2013
304 pages, $26–hardback
Reviewed by Jim Williams
Birding Book Reviews
This is a book about another Tim Gallagher search for a bird long unseen. It’s a story of extreme birding—extreme in concept and in undertaking. It’s a story of a treasure hunt in the Sierra Madre of Mexico. It has danger, bad guys, and an old map.
You remember Tim. He’s the fellow who with a friend reported an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in an Arkansas swamp in 2004. Subsequently, Gallagher’s employer, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, brought dozens of people to Arkansas to continue the search. As chronicled in Gallagher's The Grail Bird (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), it was a successful effort. There were many more reports.
This new book is about the Imperial Woodpecker of Mexico, cousin to the Ivory-billed, but bigger: a woodpecker two feet long from tail to the end of its chisel bill.
Let’s make this point early: Ten words in to the book’s first sentence, Gallagher writes: “[T]here once lived a woodpecker…” Which does not slow him down a bit.
Gallagher's Grail Bird is a fine book about the Ivory-billed adventure. His subject then was current, in the news, a subject of debate. His new book, Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker through the Wild Sierra Madre, tells a different story, a different kind of story.
The Ivory-billed search began on a trail six days old. Gallagher followed a tip. The Imperial Woodpecker comes with no hot tips. Gallagher’s information on thinly possible sightings ranges in age from six years to six decades.
Gallagher is a man of dreams and firm beliefs, and his books, including The Grail Bird and the gripping memoir Falcon Fever (Houghton Mifflin 2008), identify him as a man of obsessions. He is not easily discouraged, and Imperial Dreams covers five woodpecker searches in the Sierra Madre, most extensively his final trip in 2010.
This is an adventure story as much as, or more than, it is a bird story. If you’ve ever hiked long and hard in search of a bird, been wet for days, slept on the ground, eaten poorly, you’ll relate to this tale. It is likely to exceed any memories of your own worst trip. Gallagher many times mentions encounters with narcotraficantes. They carry AK-47 rifles; this is their land.
You will learn a good deal about the Imperial Woodpecker. The book is a history of its habits, its habitats, and the people who have seen it. There is mention of the other Campephilus woodpeckers of Central and South America; our Ivory-billed was not the only child in that family.
There’s a chapter about the Apaches and their famous chief Geronimo, who once used these mountains as sanctuary. Consider him a good guy in this context: The danger of running into his band of followers kept settlers and loggers out of the area until the late 1930s. Loggers destroyed woodpecker habitat; settlers ate the birds.
Gallagher and his companions—most often Martjan Lammertink, the Campephilus woodpecker expert from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and always a Mexican guide or two—search out people, usually very old people, who have seen the Imperial. Residents call the bird pitoreal. The searchers follow stories and rumors, letters, and a map drawn by Mexican graduate students in the 1970s. The map came into the hands of David Allen, son of Cornell's own Arthur A. Allen, who gave it to Gallagher. The Allens had seen the woodpecker in the 1940s.
The map lacked an X-dig-here mark. Gallagher managed to find one of the grad students, then in his nineties. Age and a stroke had wiped his mind of woodpecker details.
None of what Gallagher and his companions were doing was simple or easy or, often, even safe. Deep into the 2010 trip, tight-roping his way along the rocky edge of a deep canyon, Gallagher reaches his limit. Soaked with sweat, vision blurred, gut knotted, heart first fluttering then pounding, he passes out and rolls off the edge. Ten feet down, he and his backpack are stopped by a small tree, the only thing for 50 feet fore or aft that could have kept him from splatting on the rocks an echo below.
They were heading for a mesa topped with old-growth pine, the disappearing habitat of the Imperial. Logging and people with guns who shot the birds for food or sport were, or possibly are, the survival problems. (Gallagher speculates that timber harvesters also shot the birds to be rid of that environmental conflict.) Atop the mesa, scanning the valley below for birds, their glasses pick up a neat rectangle of tended crop—opium poppies. They find these often, and the discoveries quicken their step.
I say “were or are” the problem because there is no problem if there are no Imperial Woodpeckers. Gallagher does not see one. He doesn’t hear one. He finds no conclusive sign. He writes of them in the past tense. But he hopes. The Sierra Madre region where this search is centered held the birds, and it is huge, about 90,000 square miles. Its basic inaccessibility makes Arkansas or Louisiana swamps look like parkland. It’s like the Ivory-billed story was for years and years: It’s hard to prove a negative.
If you want to see the bird yourself, there is a film, made in 1956 by a dentist from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, named William Rhein. On the last of his four trips into the Sierra, he shot 85 seconds of 16mm film of the bird. He kept the film to himself because its quality did not meet his standards. It was found some years ago thanks to Lammertink’s detective work. Eventually, it was given to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
A realist, Gallagher ends the book with hopeful comments on changes made by the Mexican government that might improve Sierra Madre conservation and reduce the presence of drug gangsters. He also gives this cautionary note: If you want to continue the search yourself, "you stand a far better chance of getting killed in the Sierra Madre now than of ever seeing a pitoreal.”
- Jim Williams writes about birds for the Minneapolis StarTribune. He also does bird photography and writes a birding blog for the paper. He was associate editor of Birding from 1998 to 2003. Most of his birding is done in his Minnesota neighborhood.
Williams, J. 2013. Pitoreal [a review of Imperial Dreams, by Tim Gallagher]. Birding 45(3):66.http://blog.aba.org/2013/04/pitoreal.html