The Birder’s Holy Grail
The Imperial Woodpecker—at two feet tall, the largest woodpecker that ever lived—has not been seen in more than half a century.
By Julie Zickefoose
She’s there in a 1957-era ornithologist’s film, tossing her springy curled crest, whacking away at scaly pine bark and hitching vigorously up a tree. She is an imperial woodpecker, the largest woodpecker who ever lived: almost 2 feet tall; jet black and snow white, with a staring doll’s eye, a Kewpie crest and an oversize bone-colored bill, stuck like an awl in a surprised-looking face. And she is, sadly, one of the last of her kind: No one has spotted an imperial woodpecker in the half-century since the film was made.
Even though Tim Gallagher reported seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker, the imperial woodpecker’s northern cousin, fly across Arkansas’s Bayou De View in 2004 (and wrote a 2006 book, “The Grail Bird,” about his quest), you're aware from the get-go that his hunt for the imperial woodpecker in Mexico won't be a saga of discovery. There won’t be a photo of an oversize, pied woodpecker on the book’s cover, just an artist's rendering. Instead, “Imperial Dreams” is more along the lines of Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard.” It’s yearning, put into words and wistfully unrequited.
Sheer precipices abound in northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre, but drug dealers known as narcotraficantes have turned this place into a foreboding nightmare landscape. It's there, in remnant old-growth pine savanna, that Mr. Gallagher seeks his dream bird, leaving home and family for five expeditions through one of Earth’s most dangerous mountain ranges. This is where Geronimo surrendered to Gen. Nelson Miles in 1886; where Pancho Villa looted William Randolph Hearst’s ranch; where the Tarahumara Indians, those fabled light-footed, long-distance runners, clung to their lifestyle well into the 20th century. Today it is a barely modernized place of adobe huts and wandering burros; the explorers’ trucks jolt along two-track roads are faster walked than driven.
Mr. Gallagher paints vivid pictures of an impoverished populace under the thumb of the rapacious drug lords, who log illegally to clear patches for opium and marijuana, who kill indiscriminately and without legal consequence to maintain their duchies. In one harrowing passage, Mr. Gallagher and his friends ride in a narcotraficante’s pickup, having fallen into nervous collaboration with him in their quest for access to unlogged forest. As I read, I wondered why the author was going through it all, and wondered again and again as he rattled his teeth in old vehicles and collapsed from dehydration and exhaustion, or dodged thieves and druglords’ spies, always chasing an ornithological phantasm.
The imperial woodpecker, like its smaller American cousin, the ivory-billed woodpecker, is almost certainly gone. These majestic Mexican birds were deliberately persecuted, with loggers shooting them and even poisoning the trees upon which they fed, under the false belief that the imperial woodpeckers damaged valuable timber. Yet the inaccessibility of what mature pine forest remains lures Mr. Gallagher ever onward—perhaps a pair or two still cling to life in these high cold mountains. He seeks out village elders who remember seeing the woodpeckers, each anecdote of their encounters throwing a little more propellant on his all-consuming fire. Finally, he must be content not with seeing the bird for himself but simply with speaking with those aging eyewitnesses who knew it. As his role subtly shifts from explorer to recorder, he loosens his obsessive determination to find the bird, relegating himself to a reporter’s role and readying himself for an eventual escape from an underworld of fantasy and desire.
I’m glad that there are people in this world like Tim Gallagher: people who leave their armchairs, sweat bullets at armed roadblocks, and eat cold sardines, beans and noodles so the rest of us can marvel at their adventures. I’m glad that Mr. Gallagher is a wonderful storyteller and deeply knowledgeable ornithologist, who also has the nerve of a military commando. Every time I put this book down, I picked it up again to take in just one more chapter, lured onward by the same tantalizing bits of evidence that kept Mr. Gallagher going. Aghast at the risks he was taking, I was caught by the scimitar-clawed grip of the world's largest woodpecker on his—and my—imagination.