Searching for the World’s Rarest Bird in the Drug-War Zone of Northern Mexico 6-5-2013

Much of the Imperial Woodpecker’s range, like the far side of this stunning Sierra Madre vista, is controlled by drug traffickers.
Photo by Tim Gallagher

Lost Treasure of the Sierra Madre?

For release: June 5, 2013

Ithaca, N.Y. — What could possibly drive a rational person to leave his home and family to search for a bird that may well already be extinct—particularly when the only area it was ever found is now the epicenter of the drug war sweeping across northern Mexico? Only author Tim Gallagher—editor of Living Bird magazine at the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology—can tell you the answer.

In his latest book, IMPERIAL DREAMS: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker through the Wild Sierra Madre (Atria Books), Gallagher journeys deep into Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental, in a dangerous quest to find the spectacular Imperial Woodpecker, the largest woodpecker that ever lived.
Two-feet tall, with deep black plumage and a shield of brilliant, snow-white flight feathers, the Imperial Woodpecker is a giant among its clan. Its pounding drumbeat once echoed like the blows of a wild axe man through the Sierra as it bored into massive, grub-infested pines, hammering on them powerfully for weeks at a time until they finally toppled with a thunderous impact that shook the ground. But the bird had largely disappeared by the early 1950s, with the last confirmed sighting in 1956, and yet reports of lone Imperial Woodpeckers flying through remote pine forests persist to this day.

“I was spurred on by the hope that a handful of these amazing birds might still exist and the species could be saved if only someone would travel through the mountains, talking to people, following up on leads, and finally finding a nesting pair,” says Gallagher. “Rediscovering a lost bird as magnificent as an Imperial Woodpecker would rally scientists, birders, and nature enthusiasts around the world to save this unique species and the habitat it needs to survive.”
Gallagher, whose previous book The Grail Bird detailed the 2004 rediscovery of the long lost Ivory-billed Woodpecker of the American South—hits the trail again to see if history might repeat itself with the Imperial Woodpecker. He carries a “natural treasure” map of the Sierra Madre sightings of the Imperial, bestowed on him by a friend on his deathbed. On his intrepid adventure, Gallagher travels deep into the isolated mountains, following in the footsteps of a line of distinguished naturalists, including the great Aldo Leopold. In this mysterious, historically wild area of the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Apaches who refused to surrender with Geronimo fought on until the 1930s and William Randolph Hearst inherited a million-acre ranch, which Pancho Villa looted. Today, drug lords rule the land.

Gallagher’s search takes a terrifying turn as he encounters drug traffickers with AK-47s, fields of opium poppies and marijuana, burning houses, and fleeing villagers. IMPERIAL DREAMS is the story of a passionate, dangerous quest and a rich portrait of the people, the land, and the tragic decline and spoiling of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

Read a Living Bird magazine article about the expedition and view the only known film footage of an Imperial Woodpecker.


Pat Leonard, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, (607) 25402137, (photos available on request)
Bobbilyn Jones, Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, (212) 698-1107 (review copies)

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a membership institution dedicated to interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds. Visit the Cornell Lab’s website at mailing address is:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

159 Sapsucker Woods Rd

Ithaca, NY 14850

Comments are closed.

Photos on flickr