598: Imperial Dreams by Tim Gallagher

by Gerard


598.7209721: Gallagher, Tim. Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre. New York: Atria, 2013. 254 pp. ISBN 978-1-4391-9152-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Science
  • 590: Zoology
  • 598: Aves (Birds)
  • 598.7: Miscellaneous orders of land birds
  • 598.72: Piciformes
  • +09721: Northern states of Mexico

First, a confession: this book has no formal Dewey Decimal Classification number. As of March 8, 2013, this book does not have a full Cataloguing-In-Publication section on the copyright page nor is it listed in the catalog of the Library of Congress (my usual backup source). Tim Gallagher’s other woodpecker book—Grail Bird—which is about tracking an elusive species of woodpecker throughout the United States, is eerily similar to this one, so I used the same basic call number (598.72) and tacked on a geographic subsection. That being said, there is a case to be made for this being a general natural history book (DDC 508), but the research and the writing is specific enough to warrant classification among the birds.

Now, on to the book at hand.

Scientists the world over are continually saddened by the news of threatened and endangered species. Every time a new animal is added to the list, there is a clamor of activity to study, preserve, and bolster that animal’s population. But what if an animal were stuck the gray area between endangered and extinct? What if the last documented sighting of a particular animal was 50 years ago? How much time has to pass before it can be declared extinct? These questions and many others are considered in Tim Gallagher’s latest bird book, Imperial Dreams.

Imperial Dreams chronicles the author’s many journeys to Northern Mexico to find a living example of the imperial woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis), a bird thought to have died out some time in the last fifty years. Every decade or so, though, somebody comes forward with a sighting or a story of its continued existence. So, Cornell ornithologist Tim Gallagher, who re-discovered the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas in 2004, gathered fellow bird-lovers and scientists to go on expeditions to Mexico to finally see if the bird had truly gone extinct.

The funny thing about his journey is that we get much more about the people and the countryside than about the birds themselves. Gallagher includes every passage from just about every source for anyone having even a slight connection to the imperial. His exhaustive research into ornithological history and criss-crossing of the Mexican countryside to track down leads is quite inspiring.

The scientific aspects of this book, however, often take a back seat to the history of Northern Mexico. It has been ravaged by gangs, drug cartels, civil unrest, logging companies, and blatant disregard for preserving natural habitats. Every story of a scientific expedition is countered with an equally chilling tale of kidnapping and violence. This gets to you after a while. His journey into the Sierra Madre is well-written and teeming with wonderful details. While I won’t spoil his findings, I will say that the journey is worth it. Any lover of birds or nature will have fun with this one.