By Alexandria Simpson
Imperial Dreams—just the title of Tim Gallagher’s new book is enough to create an alluring picture in the imagination. Add the fact the bird, Imperial Woodpecker, is thought to be extinct and you find a recipe for not only an exciting dream, but also a true story full of adventure.
Birders may remember Mr. Gallagher’s quest for the Imperial’s relative, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, in the Louisiana swamps, but this tale makes that adventure seem like an innocent day birding. Encounters with narcotraficantes (drug growers), AK-47s, and bombs, hikes of miles up and down steep canyons and mountains, and a scary incident with dehydration create drama in this exciting expedition. Make no mistake; this isn’t your average birding trip, or even a good twitch. Danger could be waiting at every bend in the road and behind every tree. So who would be crazy enough to attempt looking for a probably extinct bird in spite of the peril? Only a hardcore birder, aware of, but not bothered by risk.
At least at the start of the quest, Mr. Gallagher thought the bird was worthy of this kind of dedication and risk. A large black bird sporting a long, ivory-colored bill, white wings, and a tall, curved crest—red for males, black for females—certainly makes them majestic, just as their name suggests.
Throughout the story, not only is the history of the work of scientists searching for Imperial Woodpeckers (or Imperials) woven in, but the history of the area is, as well. Various peoples of ancient Mexico attached legends to the bird: for example, the Huichol believed the bird protected the sun during its first day and was permitted to wear a scarlet crest because of its bravery. Imperials, known as pitoreales to Spanish speakers, are specialists in old growth pine forests; this is where the problem started—this timber is what loggers desired. Between this habitat loss and hunting, Imperials became rare, with only a few unconfirmed sightings after the 1970s.
Being a history buff, I enjoyed the historical background, but some readers may not. The author sometimes digresses with personal stories that are not directly related to the book’s topic, which could be irritating to some; I, however, liked them, as I am curious about people’s life experiences.
Before embarking upon his search, the author interviewed old ranchers and others who had seen the bird before it disappeared. His results were mixed: some people could not be located; others had poor memories, but several remembered well the big woodpecker. After gleaning what he could from humans, he, along with a few other researchers and guides, finally began hiking and climbing the Sierra Madres and between 2009 and 2010, he explored various locations in Mexico.
At each potential site, one of the group would make tapping sounds to attract any woodpeckers that might be in the area. Although no one knew for sure if Imperials made this sound, other members of its family tap this way, so it was hoped Imperials did as well. Time and again, they continued without success.
Unsuccessful attempts at locating the bird weren’t their only complication. During treks to find untouched Imperial habitat, patches of illegally planted opium poppies were common in cleared areas, and landowners quickly steered the group around them. After one expedition, the escort who accompanied them through the more dangerous areas was not there to meet them, and villagers hadn’t seen him in two days. The researchers were told just to continue on their journey and hope for the best, which, after much discussion, they decided to do. Though Mr. Gallagher often speaks of danger, it never seemed to really strike him that his life was actually at stake. Embarking on this last expedition of the quest, the author stashed his memory cards, notebook, and passport in his pockets, hoping if bandits did attack, at least the trip wouldn’t be in vain. He writes “…if the worst possible thing happened…my body would be identifiable from my passport, and my wife might receive my notes, recordings, and photographs…Maybe she could finish this book for me.” Fortunately, though they encountered many burned homes that had been standing two weeks before, they reached Durango, where they would fly out safely.
This last incident becomes the climax where Mr. Gallagher realizes that it was “time to pass the baton of searching for the imperial woodpecker to others,” and warns those who may want to follow in his footsteps “…you stand a far better chance of getting killed in the Sierra Madre now than of ever seeing a pitoreal.”
The ending invoked a mixed reaction. I was disappointed because after all the danger, preparation, and research there are no results to show for the effort; I guess I was looking for a “happily-ever-after” ending, with even a small population of Imperial Woodpeckers found alive and well in some remote part of the Sierra Madres. However, it was also inspiring because it meant that the potential to be the one to find these beautiful birds is still there. When (or if) the political situation becomes more stable, I would love to join the quest.
All-around, Imperial Dreams is a great addition to the birder’s bookshelf. Though we aren’t certain that the Imperial Woodpecker still exists, perhaps one young birder who reads this book will be motivated to pick up where Tim Gallagher left off and rediscover this regal bird surviving away from human eyes.
About the author: Alexandria Simpson is an avid, sixteen-year-old birder from Santa Anna, Texas. While she wishes she could say she has been birding all of her life, instead she has spent the last four years making up for lost time. She wants to become an ornithologist and someday read scientific papers without falling asleep. Her photography, illustrations, and writings have won awards at local, state, and national levels.