"Imperial Dreams" By Tim Gallagher


Extinction may be part of nature’s plan.  99% of the creatures that ever roamed the Earth are now extinct, but in the workings of  natural selection an extinction may lead to a new and well-adapted species — feathered dinosaurs are in the lineage of birds.  However, when extinction is caused by a human-driven disruption of the natural environment it is a loss to the natural world and shame to the people who caused it.

There should be no wonder that people will dedicate their lives to finding species said to be extinct, and reversing the forces of extinction, if possible.  Tim Gallagher of Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology went in quest of the ivory-billed woodpecker in the swamps and back regions of Arkansas and Louisiana and describes his expedition in the 2005 book “The Grail Bird”.  That successful attempt surely influenced his plan to find a related bird believed to be extinct: el pitoreal, the Imperial Woodpecker of the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.  The Sierra Madre Occidental (whose “treasure” was made famous by B. Traven’s novel and the John Huston movie) is both physically remote, topographically rugged and socially unstable.  The Sierra Madre has been largely under control of Mexican narcotraficantes.  Prior to his departure for Mexico, Tim Gallagher had recurring dreams of retaliation by someone with an AK-47.  In the real world there were murders, kidnappings and hostages held for ransom, ranchers being forced off their land and a general sense of dread among the few people who still inhabit the Sierra Madre.  “Every time I come to Mexico,” observes Tim, “It seems ten times more dangerous than the time before.”

But the draw of the Campephilus Imperialis was too strong, and if one was to be found time was not running in favor of Tim Gallagher and his fellow Cornell bird researcher Martjan Lammertink.  They were guided in part by an 1898 article by Edward W. Nelson in the ornithological journal “The Auk”.  Even then it was not easy to encounter the largest of all woodpeckers, despite its distinctive upswept plumage and a “queer, nasal, penny-trumpet like” call.  At 7,000-feet elevation the air was thin and  in the pine forests the trail could disappear completely.

It took us three hours to reach Tres Castillos on dirt roads far worse than those we’d travelled the day before.  We could plainly see the three huge rock outcroppings looming above the plain, only a mile or two away, but we were having trouble reaching them.  We kept hitting muddy areas and sinking into the mire.  Each time that happened, we had to back up quickly to avoid getting stuck and try another route.  In several places our way was blocked by arroyitos, or small gullies, just deep enough to be impassible.   –from “Imperial Dreams”

Gallagher is taken ill numerous times, nearly falls to his death while climbing a steep slope and pushes himself beyond his limits.  All the while, the imperial woodpecker seems worse than elusive.  It may indeed be extinct, victim of 1950-era shooters and of poisoning by foresters who didn’t appreciate that woodpeckers only feed on rotted trees that the commercial timber industry would never use.

Tim Gallagher’s interest in birds dates from his childhood.  He is an experienced falconer, a founder of WildBird Magazine and now the editor-in-chief of Living Bird, the quarterly journal of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.  “Imperial Dreams” goes beyond the search for the imperial woodpecker to tell about the natural history and native cultures of Mexico as well as the people that have played a role in Mexican life, including the Apaches and the Mormons.

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