Review: Imperial Dreams
Navigating deep canyons and dodging drug traffickers on a quest to find the largest woodpecker ever known
Large woodpeckers seem to ignite passions. The purported rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in 2005 enthralled not just birdwatchers and environmentalists but also a broad swath of the American public. Though the rediscovery has been extensively debated since its announcement (a controversy not helped by the quality of the video that serves as the only recorded evidence for the bird's existence), the uncertainty has only served to extend the interest in the bird. Indeed, the ivory-bill has inspired scientific papers, books, and movies about the bird and its history.
Tim Gallagher, who authored one of those books, was part of the team that reported the most recent sighting of the bird and announced its rediscovery eight years ago. The experience clearly fanned the flames of Gallagher's passion for elusive, large woodpeckers, as evidenced by his latest book Imperial Dreams. In the book, Gallagher describes his quest through Mexico's Sierra Madre to search for the imperial woodpecker--the largest woodpecker species ever known. It is related to the ivory-billed, but historically inhabited the Sierra Madre's open pine forests instead of the swampy, bottomland hardwood forests haunted by the ivory-bill.
In Imperial Dreams, Gallagher combines an in-depth, extensively researched historical account of the region with an equally impressive detailed account of his own experiences there. The Sierra Madre's history abounds with violence, lore, and natural beauty; Gallagher takes the reader from the time of Geronimo and the Apaches to the present-day drug traffickers and kidnappings, all set against a backdrop of ridges, mesas, and canyons.
The book is filled, above all, with absence. More than a book about birds, it is a book about birds that were but are no longer. Gallagher tracks down several people who, in their youth, remember seeing imperial woodpeckers, or pitoreales as they are known there. But over and over, he hears a variation on a theme: "That was long ago, and now they are gone." When he reflects on the thoughtless (and sometimes intentional) destruction of the species, Gallagher's sorrow is palpable:
Even more beautiful had been the primeval mesa pine forest that had once covered much of the surrounding land. If only [William Randolph] Hearst had seen the value of saving this amazing place when it was in near-pristine condition, the imperial woodpeckers would still be there. It made me sick to think of it.
Through conversations and investigation, Gallagher comes to believe that it was not simply logging of the Sierra Madre's pine trees that led to the disappearance of the imperial woodpecker, or subsistence hunting by local people. He thinks that they were deliberately killed off by the logging companies, with poison and bullets, under the misguided idea that the birds damaged the trees that were being logged. (In truth, the birds only fed at dead trees already infested with beetle larvae).
One of most remarkable pieces of the imperial woodpecker saga is the discovery of the only existing footage of these birds in existence. Martjan Lammertink, who joins Gallagher for part of his quest, had also gone searching for the bird in the 1990s. While looking through archived notes of James Tanner (an ornithologist who studied the birds in the 1930s), he came across a reference to "two reels of movie film" made by amateur birder William Rhein during a 1956 expedition to record video and audio of these birds. Lammertink tracked down Rhein, who had never made the footage public. After Rhein's death, his nephew Ronald Thorpe donated the film to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It can be viewed below. Despite its brevity and shakiness (it was apparently shot "hand held from the back of a mule"), as Gallagher notes, "this was the only photographic documentation ever made of the imperial woodpecker; its importance cannot be overstated."
As he seeks out old sightings through a landscaped that's been heavily altered by logging and drug-growing since World War II, Gallagher encounters rifle-toting narcotraficantes, burned-out houses, and a nearby rocket-propelled grenade attack in his quest to find any evidence of the imperial woodpecker. And while Gallagher hopes other searchers will follow in his footsteps in the search for this bird, he ends with this caution: "You stand a far better chance of getting killed in the Sierra Madre now than of ever seeing a pitoreal."