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.


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.” 

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