From left to right, Martjan Lammertink, Manuel Escarcega, and Tepehuan guide Rafael look across the vast chasm of Taxicaringa Canyon. The paramilitary drug cartel Los Zetas controls the area on the other side.

From left to right, Martjan Lammertink, Manuel Escarcega, and Tepehuan guide Rafael look across the vast chasm of Taxicaringa Canyon. The paramilitary drug cartel Los Zetas controls the area on the other side.

Naturalist Tim Gallagher is obsessed with rare birds. A decade ago, the editor-in-chief of “Living Bird,” the magazine of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, joined Diane to talk about his rediscovery of the legendary ivory-billed woodpecker. Now, Gallagher relays his current pursuit to save the giant imperial woodpecker of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains. No one knows whether this rare bird is extinct. Gallagher describes his dangerous expedition into this remote region of Geronimo and Pancho Villa where he dodged armed drug traffickers and kidnappers.


  • Tim Gallagher Editor in chief of "Living Bird," is an award-winning author and wildlife photographer. He also wrote "The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker."

Imperial Woodpecker On Film

The late William L. Rhein of Pennsylvania comments on viewing his 1956 expedition film from Durango, Mexico, in which he captured a female Imperial Woodpecker — the only photographic evidence of the bird ever found.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from Tim Gallagher’s “Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre.” Copyright 2013 by Tim Gallagher. Reprinted here by permission of Atria Books. All rights reserved.


  • 11:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Bird specialist Tim Gallagher trekked deep into the remote Sierra Madre Mountains of Northwestern Mexico to find a long-lost giant woodpecker. During his dangerous quest, he uncovered the only images ever taken of a living Imperial Woodpecker. When the Cornell Lab of Ornithology released the 1956 footage, it drew more than 100,000 viewers in three days.

  • 11:07:31

    MS. DIANE REHMGallagher's new book is "Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre." Tim Gallagher joins me here in the studio and, of course, I know there are many, many bird lovers in our listening area. Do call us 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Tim, it's good to see you.

  • 11:08:07

    MR. TIM GALLAGHERThanks, Diane, it's great to be here.

  • 11:08:09

    REHMLast time you and I talked, you were looking for another kind of woodpecker.

  • 11:08:18

    GALLAGHERYes, I was looking for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird of the American South, and it's actually the closest relative of the Imperial Woodpecker, although the Imperial Woodpecker of Mexico is much larger. It's almost a third larger.

  • 11:08:29

    REHMSo what set you off on a journey to find a woodpecker that many believe is extinct?

  • 11:08:40

    GALLAGHERWell, I was interested in both species going back so, you know, when I went looking through the South, I was actually -- what I had in mind was something more like an oral history project where I'd find everyone who had seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the 1930s, you know, and the early '40s.

  • 11:09:01

    GALLAGHERAnd I'd, you know, record their thoughts and ask them questions about the bird because if indeed it was extinct, then these would be the last living contact that we have with these birds and I wanted to glean all the knowledge I could from them. And that's what led ultimately, you know, I'd heard about someone who had a sighting only six days earlier, Gene Sparling, in an Arkansas bayou.

  • 11:09:26

    GALLAGHERAnd my friend Bobby Harrison and I went down there and we were going to spend a week floating the bayou and we actually had a sighting on the second day. I mean, it was crazy. It was literally. It flew right in front of us and it was swinging up the Lannen tree.

  • 11:09:40

    REHMAnd you were positive of what you saw?

  • 11:09:43

    GALLAGHERAbsolutely positive. I mean, it was unmistakable and we yelled Ivory-billed and, of course, scared the bird and we ended up running through the woods ripping our clothes, climbing over fallen logs, almost going in the...

  • 11:09:55

    REHMTo catch another glance?

  • 11:09:56

    GALLAGHERYeah, and Bobby was crying, ooh, ooh, an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

  • 11:10:00

    REHMOh, my God, so then you go after this other Imperial Woodpecker?

  • 11:10:07

    GALLAGHERYeah, well, at the time, even back then I was interviewing people I could find who'd been on expeditions searching for the bird, like, in the 1940s and 1970s and so I was already very much interested in it and actually got distracted by finding that bird in Arkansas.

  • 11:10:29


  • 11:10:29

    GALLAGHERBecause that then was the whole story we just chased after that bird. So after that died down, I turned my focus to Mexico again. But meanwhile, it was getting more and more dangerous all the time there and some of my Mexican friends would say, well, better not go this year, it's bad. It's very dangerous. Wait until next year, maybe it will be better.

  • 11:10:47

    GALLAGHERAnd then every year it would be 10 or 15 times more dangerous and I finally decided I really have to go now. If there are any of these birds left, it's imperative to find them and try to help them.

  • 11:11:00

    REHMLet's talk for a moment about this 1956 footage of the Imperial Woodpecker. We now have that on our website,, so for those of you who would like to see the bird we're talking about, you can go to that website now. Describe this Imperial Woodpecker.

  • 11:11:31

    GALLAGHERWell, it's two feet in length. It's black and white and it's got. It's almost got a bluish sheen to it on the black and then it's like a white triangle below where the bird's flight feathers are white. And they have a beautiful crest. The male has red on its crest. The female has a black crest, but it sort of curves forward much more on her and she's a real impressive-looking bird.

  • 11:11:58

    GALLAGHERAnd that's what we have in that film.

  • 11:11:58

    REHMAnd that's what you have a drawing of on the cover of your book titled "Imperial Dreams," and this artist's rendering is really smashing-looking. But tell about that 1956 footage, where that came from and who got it.

  • 11:12:20

    GALLAGHERWell, this is a kind of funny and interesting story. There's this dentist in Pennsylvania called William Rhein and, you know, he didn't have any -- he and his wife didn't have any children so they had lots of money to spend. But he got in his head. He really wanted to take the first sound recordings and film footage of an Imperial Woodpecker.

  • 11:12:44

    GALLAGHERSo he launched three separate expeditions in 1953, 1954 and 1956 and, you know, really roughing it. But I don't know why he left the good life to do that, although I do personally understand it. But, you know, these guys were all World War II combat veterans and, yeah, maybe they just felt like it was a good adventure.

  • 11:13:08

    GALLAGHERAnd they had some wild times down there, you know, even back then. It was really like going into the 1900s, I mean, the 1800s.

  • 11:13:13

    REHMBut they did?

  • 11:13:17

    GALLAGHEROn the third time, yeah, and they didn't get any sound recordings. This bird has never had sound recordings. They had to carry this huge parabolic microphone on the back of a mule. It looks almost like a sledding disk and it took six batteries to operate, six truck batteries to operate the recording unit so that was hopeless.

  • 11:13:36

    GALLAGHERBut he did manage to get on the 1956 trip. He did manage to take some footage from the back of a mule, of a female Imperial that kept flying around from tree to tree and foraging. But then the funny part of it was he was such a perfectionist and sort of a professional-level photographer and cinematographer that he was embarrassed by it.

  • 11:13:58

    GALLAGHERHe didn't show it to anyone because, you know, he wanted it to be rock-solid on a tripod and, of course, he just couldn't accomplish it. And so this just...

  • 11:14:08

    REHMSo he was embarrassed by the film…

  • 11:14:09

    GALLAGHERYeah, yeah.

  • 11:14:09

    REHM...he got?

  • 11:14:10


  • 11:14:10

    REHMSo he put it away?

  • 11:14:13

    GALLAGHERRight, right...

  • 11:14:14

    REHMAnd how did you get a hold of it?

  • 11:14:18

    GALLAGHERWell, my colleague, Martjan Lammertink, he was looking through some old letters in the Cornell Archives and James Tanner, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker researcher from the 1930s and '40s, he'd been planning to go after the Imperial himself and he had contacted Rhein because he knew a lot about it.

  • 11:14:36

    GALLAGHERAnd Rhein happened to mention in one sentence that, you know, he'd taken some films of the bird down there. And so Martjan tracked him down on one of his trips and they actually -- he didn't know what it would look like. He came all the way from Holland and found this guy and they put the 16 millimeter projector on and he had the sense of mind to have a tape recorder running and that's the voice over that you hear when the movie plays, is William Rhein and his wife and Martjan sitting together in the living room watching this movie.

  • 11:15:12

    GALLAGHERAnd even then William Rhein is saying how terrible it is, you know. That it was lousy footage, you know.

  • 11:15:16

    REHMBut, you know, Tim, you said many people don't understand why a dentist would leave his lucrative practice to go out and look for a bird. I think there are many people who don't understand the mentality of bird watchers and bird seekers. Now you need to help us understand through your own thinking and your own passion for this subject, what it's all about.

  • 11:15:52

    GALLAGHERYeah, and I know it is hard to explain to someone who doesn't care about birds or that kind of thing. And I'm really not the kind who will just do a lot of work just to get another bird on my list, my life list, that I've never seen before.

  • 11:16:09

    GALLAGHERBut I focus intensely on particular species that I'm really, really interested in, you know, like the Peregrine Falcon. I was really interested in that when they were, you know, endangered and...

  • 11:16:22


  • 11:16:22 danger of becoming extinct. And I think, you know, and then I turned to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the Imperial because they're very beautiful, dramatic-looking birds, but there is a poignant story behind them. You know, one of the most unique, really unique birds in North America was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and we just destroyed its habitat and devastated the bird's population.

  • 11:16:51

    GALLAGHERAnd I just wanted to study this bird. I wanted to find out everything I could about it and, if possible, if everything went right, to find a nest and help protect the bird.

  • 11:17:01

    REHMRescue it?

  • 11:17:01

    GALLAGHERRight, rescue it, yes. And I felt the same way about the Imperial and it had an additional poignancy because it had never been studied much in its life. I mean, just the fact that no pictures and sound recordings had ever been made of it and even this mountain range, the Sierra Madre Occidental, it starts like 50 miles south of the U.S. border, but for some reason, we didn't -- our ornithologists didn't invest the time and effort to track this bird down and learn more about it.

  • 11:17:37

    REHMAnd of course, you set off to do exactly that, even knowing that it was likely extinct already.

  • 11:17:50

    GALLAGHERBut I did have that additional thing keeping me going, that I knew there would be people there who remembered the bird and I wanted to talk to them about it. What was it like? What was its voice like? What can you tell me about how it lived?

  • 11:18:07

    GALLAGHERAnd that was wonderful, finding, you know, people in their 80s, 90s. I even interviewed a 99-year-old man on his deathbed who, you know, told me about back in 1919 and, you know, when he was a kid.

  • 11:18:24

    REHMAnd seeing the bird?

  • 11:18:24

    GALLAGHERWhen he was a kid, yes, yes.

  • 11:18:28

    REHMTim Gallagher, his new book is titled "Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre." Short break here, we'll be right back.

  • 11:20:05

    REHMAnd if you just joined us, Tim Gallagher is my guest. He's editor in chief of Living Bird, the magazine of the world-famous Cornell Lab of Ornithology. His new book is titled "Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre." And just before the break, you were talking about having talked with a 90-some-year-old man who can remember seeing this beautiful bird. How did he describe his own experience?

  • 11:20:52

    GALLAGHERWell, this guy was amazing anyway. He can remember as a very young child, like having to hide when Pancho Villa's raiders were sweeping through air. And so -- but he remembered this winter of 1919 when people were getting that Spanish flu and a lot of entire families died. And he told me about that. And he said, and it was also, they had the most snowfall they'd ever had in the village of Creole (sp?) that anyone can remember before since.

  • 11:21:23

    GALLAGHERAnd it pushed these birds down from the higher country and that's when he first saw them. They were actually right in the village of Creole, they'd see imperial woodpeckers.

  • 11:21:33

    REHMAnd probably in a fair number of them at one time?

  • 11:21:38

    GALLAGHEROh, yeah. Well, yeah, sometimes these were seen in groups of 10 or 11 or, you know, a dozen. And...

  • 11:21:45

    REHMSo the question is why did it disappear?

  • 11:21:51

    GALLAGHERYou know, the belief has always been amongst scientists that they were collateral damage because of the logging. You know, loggers would come in and not only would they cut down a lot of the -- these were only found in the high country, Mesa pine forest. You know, old growth forests. So not only -- they come in there and cut the trees down, but they'd also open up the area to other people. You know, people subsistence hunters and people like that.

  • 11:22:22

    GALLAGHERAnd people, well, they probably came in with 22s and shot them for food and other birds. And I always had a little bit of problem with that because I wondered, well, why shoot them when there are other things to shoot, like a squirrel or whatever.

  • 11:22:36

    REHMShooting that bird...

  • 11:22:36

    GALLAGHERRight, right.

  • 11:22:37

    REHM...for food?

  • 11:22:39

    GALLAGHERRight. But the more I looked around and interviewed people, I started hearing stories about, oh, in 1952 they killed 12 of these birds near this one village. And then I talked to a man who in the mid-1950s remembers riding past the sawmill and seeing six of them piled up. And then -- but the kicker for me was on our last expedition when we're interviewing this man, this elderly man, and he told us in about 1953 or 1954 a logging company had, you know, someone, a representative from them had said, these birds here, destroying valuable timber.

  • 11:23:23

    GALLAGHERAnd we need -- we have to do something about it. We need to kill them off. And even though, of course, these birds were only attacking trees that were all full of grubs and wasn't good lumber anyway. But this man said that he gave them poison to smear on their foraging trees and that these birds would come in and get it on their bills and ingest it and die. And that's when all my hopes kind of came cascading down, because I realized, well, these birds moved around in roving bands and things and covered a lot of ground.

  • 11:23:54

    REHMSo even one...

  • 11:23:54

    GALLAGHERAnd so you wouldn't just -- yeah, you wouldn't just wipe out that local population. They could be coming off some distant mesa and, you know, where they would have been safe otherwise. And it just -- I realized there was an extermination campaign waged against these birds. I mean, I know it's circumstantial evidence, but I had interviewed people in several different parts of the Sierra hundreds of miles apart and I was getting a similar story. And it all happened in the '50s.

  • 11:24:20

    REHMSo, now, as I understand it, nearly 50,000 people had been killed in that whole area of Mexico where you were since 2006 in the drug war and the death toll keeps rising. So your friends were warning you, you kept putting off your trip, putting it off and finally you went. It's always been kind of a hide out for outlaws from Geronimo to Pancho Villa. So how were you able to stay safe?

  • 11:25:08

    GALLAGHERWell, you know, to tell you the truth, I always felt like I was always missing having something terrible happen. I go somewhere and then, you know, like I camped out behind that ranchers, Meredith Romney, who in fact is one of Mitt Romney Mexican cousins. But he's a...

  • 11:25:27

    REHMBecause his father, George Romney, was born in Mexico.

  • 11:25:30

    GALLAGHERYeah, right. Right. And most of the Mexican Mormons fled from Mexico when, you know, the Mexican Revolution was at its height. And then a lot of them went back but some didn't. So Mitt Romney's branch of the family stayed in the U.S. and Meredith Romney's family moved back to Mexico. So he's a fairly big rancher down there. And he was -- one of the men I was traveling with knew him quite well.

  • 11:25:56

    GALLAGHERAnd he let us camp out on his ranch. And just about two weeks later, he was kidnapped and held for ransom in a cave up in the mountains. And they held him for a couple of days. And they had to set it up so his brother got some ransom money and was supposed to throw it out on, you know, bag on the street in the middle of the night and they'd let him go after that. And they did. They did let him go up in the mountains.

  • 11:26:22

    GALLAGHERAnd my friend and some other people had to search for him. And they found him the next day about noon. But it turned out later -- they did finally catch those kidnappers and they had kidnapped 18 different people. And 14 of them had been killed, some of them after paying the ransom. So Meredith was very lucky. So that was one thing where I just felt like, I just missed that. That's good.

  • 11:26:44

    REHMBut when you realized how close you were to that kind of danger, did it at all dissuade you from continuing your search?

  • 11:27:00

    GALLAGHERWell, I mean, in a way it was weird. You know, I was so committed to it by then. And I'd almost get an adrenaline rush, too, I mean, to tell you the truth. It's like, whoa, I got to do this now quickly. And I really wanted to go to these areas fast because it was just getting worst by the minute. And even, you know, I started thinking, you travel around in those mountains, you'd think, well, this isn't too bad.

  • 11:27:25

    GALLAGHERI mean, really terrible rough roads. It takes you five hours to get 20 miles. But you think the people are so nice you meet up there, the Tepehuan Indians and Tarahumaras and very nice people, give you the shirt off their back. And...

  • 11:27:41

    REHMBut at the same time...

  • 11:27:43

    GALLAGHERAnd yet -- then you -- yeah, you run into these guys with the club cab pickups with dark windows holding AK-47s. And...

  • 11:27:49

    REHMDid you see them as well?

  • 11:27:51

    GALLAGHERI did. I did, yeah.

  • 11:27:52

    REHMAnd you just kept walking?

  • 11:27:53

    GALLAGHERWell, this was the very last trip. This was the very last trip. And actually my wife read my field notes when I got back from that. And she said, no more, please.

  • 11:28:04

    REHMEnough already.

  • 11:28:05

    GALLAGHERYeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah. That was just insane.

  • 11:28:09

    REHMLet's talk about the treasure map that your friend gave you on his death bed to help you find that bird.

  • 11:28:22

    GALLAGHERThis is David Allen, who is the son of the famous Cornell ornithologist Arthur Allen who actually founded Cornell Lab of Ornithology where I work. And I -- when I moved here about 23 years ago, I got to know David and we became pretty good friends. We are both fly fishermen and we'd do other things like that. But he had been really obsessed with the imperial woodpecker. And he and his father and his mother, they all went in 1946 all over those mountains.

  • 11:28:52

    GALLAGHERAnd they actually found one, but they weren't able to photograph it. So he came back again in 1971. And then just when he got back, he was sent -- Bernardo Villa, famous biologist in Mexico, he sent him this map that some of his graduate students had made. And they said they had seen imperial woodpeckers and, you know, like he made these red zebra stripes in the areas where they were nesting.

  • 11:29:20

    GALLAGHERAnd he wanted to go back there, but he wasn't able to get funding for it. And it was something he never got to do. And he just -- not that long before he died, he gave me this map and he said I sure would like to go along with you and do this. And this was in the Copper Canyon area, in the high country there. And I did get to go there. And parts there have become really bad drug country too.

  • 11:29:46

    GALLAGHERWe even -- we drove out to one area. We were checking that it was one of the places that was in this territory and we found an airplane landing strip that had been cut there, obviously to get drugs in and out. And so we got out of there quickly.

  • 11:30:00

    REHMYeah, I was about to say. What kind of vehicle were you traveling in?

  • 11:30:07

    GALLAGHERWe were in a four-wheel drive pickup truck. Yeah.

  • 11:30:10

    REHMA four-wheel, a jeep or something like that?

  • 11:30:13


  • 11:30:14

    REHMI can't imagine that a four-wheel jeep with a man driving along would not attract the attention of these people who are certainly potential kidnappers. And I guess the question becomes, are you crazy?

  • 11:30:35

    GALLAGHERWell, people have said that.

  • 11:30:36

    REHMYeah. You know, you have to wonder moving into the kind of area with that passion driving you and what it is inside that drives you.

  • 11:30:54

    GALLAGHERYeah. Well, like I said, the last trip, that was the one where, you know, we actually had had -- we'd made friends with someone who is a forester and he knew some people living in this remote village. It was actually where that movie was taken. And we wanted to go back there, because we looked on Google Earth and we'd seen these beautiful mesas that had never been logged that you can see.

  • 11:31:19

    REHMAnd the rock formation.

  • 11:31:21

    GALLAGHERYeah, yeah, with cliffs around them that you can, you know, so it was impractical for people to log them. And we just thought, oh, these are these lost worlds we've been looking for where maybe these birds could still exist. So we really wanted to get out there. and I had found this man, Richard Heintzelman, the last remaining survivor of that 1956 expedition. And we're trying to figure out where exactly this film was taken.

  • 11:31:44

    GALLAGHERHe said, well, there's this big rock there. And he showed me pictures of it. And he said if you can find that rock, that's within a half a mile of where the movie was taken. And so anyway, this forester arranged a meeting with these villagers who actually were drug growers. But, you know, he thought, you really got to get some allies in this. And so, they came down and he gave them this impassioned speech kind of.

  • 11:32:13

    GALLAGHERWell, you really should help this guy. They kind of -- you know, they just want to come down here for the good of Mexico and help us. And they said, oh, yeah, yeah. They were really great about it. And so we showed them those pictures like those rocks. And, oh, si. Los Pilares. The pillars. They knew it. So they knew right where it was. And so we were really excited. And then they're saying they were going to, you know, help us get up there.

  • 11:32:40

    GALLAGHERBut there were dangerous areas on the way with other people in control. And then across the river, which we had also wanted to check, it's controlled by Los Zetas, the worst drug cartel. They're paramilitaries who left the Mexican military to become, you know, part of this drug cartel. So we knew this was going to be a scary thing. But then later, you know, that night before we left, the forester got an anonymous phone call from someone who knew what we're doing. Kind of threatened us and said, you know...

  • 11:33:13

    REHMDo not go.

  • 11:33:14

    GALLAGHERRight, right. So anyway, we were supposed to meet this drug grower in the plaza at midnight and talk to him about it. And our forester friend, Julian, was there and Martjan Lammertink was with me. And he just said, well, you know, a real wave of violence is going through here now and you really probably shouldn't go now. And, you know, and he said, I know I told you it wasn't that bad about a month ago when you first contacted me. But it's really bad now.

  • 11:33:48

    GALLAGHERAnd so, Martjan asked me if I wanted to go or not. And I just thought, you know, I want to go, yes.

  • 11:33:55

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So you proceeded.

  • 11:34:04

    GALLAGHERYes, which kind of made, after that on the journey it was like I thought, boy, if anything happens, it's all my fault. But, you know, I just could not imagine, like, we knew where that place was and we knew these beautiful, you know, mesas out there that were untouched. And what if there's birds out there? I figured, it's not going to be better next year, it's going to a hundred times worse. We'll never go back there in my lifetime. And, you know, maybe there are birds there. I just couldn't imagine not going. I was just adamant.

  • 11:34:37

    REHMAnd what did you companions think?

  • 11:34:41

    GALLAGHERWell, the other Mexican scientist who was going to go with us at that point, he dropped out of the expedition. And Martjan is very stoical and, you know, we'll go. But, you know, the next day, on the way up, it was a five-hour drive on really rough, rugged roads. Some areas were you could walk faster than you could drive a vehicle because these dirt roads and pot holes and boulders. And at one point -- and we are following the drug growers in front of us, a pickup truck came racing past us.

  • 11:35:23

    GALLAGHERAnd the guys were carrying AK-47s. And they went up beside the other guy's car and went beside him for a while, talking to him or something. And then they peeled away. And when we finally got to his friendly territory in his village, he got out of the car and he was just white as a sheet and shaking. He'd been so confident the night before that I thought, well, it's going to be okay if he says it's okay.

  • 11:35:48

    GALLAGHERAnd he immediately went into his cabin and he got an Uzi and started loading bullets into a clip. And he put it under the seat of his car. And you got to remember, in Mexico, people can't have guns. They, you know, even like a 22 or something, it's against the law. So, you know, they'll take your car away and throw you in jail. So that was a big step, that was an escalation. But he said those people fit the description of someone who'd kill -- some people who'd killed someone in another village just a week earlier. So...

  • 11:36:16

    REHMAnd you continued?

  • 11:36:18

    GALLAGHERYes. Well, then we're already past it. And he said, but under no circumstances try to get out of here without me, I'll meet you in two weeks in this village and we'll get...

  • 11:36:30

    REHMTwo weeks in this village trying to get a glimpse of this bird.

  • 11:36:39


  • 11:36:39


  • 11:36:41

    GALLAGHERWell, I didn't get a glimpse, but I did have some interesting interviews, including that one of the men who explained what happened with the poison. And but also, I mean, I fell off a cliff. It seemed like suddenly I could have died 10 different ways there. And then violence did really break out. You know, some houses were burned on the road down the mountain. And someone was kidnapped from a village and held for ransom.

  • 11:37:14

    GALLAGHERI mean, I'm talking about like an $800 ransom. And it was -- all these villagers having to put their money together to bail this guy out. So it was crazy.

  • 11:37:23

    REHMTim Gallagher, his new book is titled, "Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre." When we come back, it's time to open the phones and hear your thoughts on his journey. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. I've been talking this hour with Tim Gallagher. He is an ornithologist. He is the editor-in-chief of Living Bird, the magazine of the world famous Cornell Lab of Ornithology. His new book all about the Imperial Woodpecker and his experience trying to track that woodpecker throughout the Sierra Madre is titled, "Imperial Dreams." There was a film made of the Imperial Woodpecker back in 1956. The qualities of the film are perhaps not, let's say, a hundred percent, but you can see them at our website, We're going to open the phones now. First to Raleigh, N.C. good morning, Charles.

  • 11:41:17

    CHARLESGood morning, Diane, how are you this morning?

  • 11:41:18

    REHMI'm fine, thank you, sir.

  • 11:41:20

    CHARLESGood. Well, I have a two-part question and I'm not sure if it's all answerable, but we'll give it a shot here. Do we have any kind of postulation about how many Imperial and/or Ivory-billed Woodpeckers there might be left in the world? And the second part question would be if there are some left -- and then I know there's some of the Ivory-billed left -- if there's some of the Imperial left might it be possible with our level of technology now to get DNA samples and start cloning these birds and start a breeding program to release back into the wild? And I'll happily take my answer off the air.

  • 11:42:00

    REHMAll right, sir, thanks for calling.

  • 11:42:03

    GALLAGHERWell, we really don't know -- have any idea how many of these birds are left.

  • 11:42:07

    REHMOr if any.

  • 11:42:08

    GALLAGHERRight, I mean a lot of people think the Ivory Bill and the Imperial Woodpeckers are extinct. I mean I happen to have seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, you know, nine years ago so, you know, hopefully there's a few of those around. But I believe there's probably a handful of Imperial Woodpeckers left in Mexico based on, you know, people I interviewed in the field who had good descriptions of birds they'd seen within the last five years so -- but whether we can save them or not I don't know. It was very depressing in Mexico. You know, there's no way the government could protect even if we found a nest.

  • 11:42:47

    GALLAGHERAs for your other question, I mean, we have specimens, you know, at various museums. And if they ever do develop a way to clone them, you know, based on their DNA, which I don't know if they ever will be. I know a lot of people are talking about it now, but we do have those specimens.

  • 11:43:05

    REHMTo Saratoga, Fla. good morning, Kathy.

  • 11:43:09

    KATHYGood morning, Diane. I've always wanted to talk to you.

  • 11:43:12

    REHMWell, I'm glad to have you with us.

  • 11:43:15

    KATHYWell, I'm calling because I raised birds and I'm half Columbian and I've been to the Amazon. And, as a matter of fact, many years ago -- 20 some years ago -- I brought back a Scarlet Macaw and a Blue and Gold that went to the Louisiana and Alabama zoos for captive breeding programs. I also wrote about the Cornell Lab because I was on the wrong side of the drug war and I, of course, straightened everything. I was a kid when this happened because I'm on the coast of Florida, but I took my interest in birds and I used some of the money that was ill gotten, I guess, but I raised about I don't know how many macaws in Sarasota -- in Englewood, actually.

  • 11:43:57

    KATHYAnd I just want to know from Mr. Gallagher if they are doing more of this captive breeding so that we can re-release and also because I was in that -- I wrote about it in handcuffs in the sand. I wrote that we need to work on something different with this drug war because it is interfering with ecology and everything.

  • 11:44:16

    REHMAll right. Thanks for calling.

  • 11:44:19

    GALLAGHERWell, we -- you know, we don’t have any living members of either of these two species in captivity so we don't have any way to have a captive breeding project right now, but it would be great if we did.

  • 11:44:31

    REHMHere's an email from David in Hedgesville, W.Va., "Is there any chance that the bird sighted that was thought to be an Ivory-billed Woodpecker could have been an offspring of Pileated Woodpeckers that had a genetic change similar to that which started Ivory Bills in the first place?" And that's what you and I talked about ten years ago.

  • 11:45:08

    GALLAGHERWell, no, I mean they're in a different genus so they're not even closely related, you know. The Ivory Bill and Imperial are Campephilus woodpeckers and Pileated's Dryocopus and so...

  • 11:45:21

    REHMBut what -- tell me about the similarities in appearance and the differences.

  • 11:45:28

    GALLAGHERWell, a Pileated Woodpecker is also a large crested woodpecker, although it's significantly smaller than an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. And, you know, they fly differently. You know a Pileated has kind of a bounding flight while an Ivory-billed Woodpecker has really straight, direct flight almost like a duck. And so it's difficult to mistake them, you know, in the field, I would think, if you got a good look at it like that.

  • 11:45:58

    REHMBut how come no one else has since then seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker?

  • 11:46:07

    GALLAGHERWell, people have. I mean even during the Cornell search we had, I think, 16 different sightings and we wrote up seven of them in that science article. And there are still reports coming that, you know, we're looking at.

  • 11:46:25

    REHMAll right and here's an email from Sam who says, "The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has drawers full of Ivory-billed study skins. In fact, hundreds of them collected in the '30s and '40s. I think Cornell is partly responsible for the Ivory-billed's disappearance. Are your efforts fueled by institutional guilt?"

  • 11:46:59

    GALLAGHERWell, I have to correct that statement a little bit. The Cornell Lab -- or the Cornell Museum has three -- I think three specimens of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and also a couple of mounted ones someone donated to us. And none of them were collected in the '30s and '40s. They were all basically from the late 19th Century and from Florida. And I think we have the skull -- one skull of an Imperial Woodpecker.

  • 11:47:28

    GALLAGHERAnd so -- oh, and I should point out that Arthur Allen who founded the Cornell Lab Ornithology he found -- he would never have collected an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. And he had chances to. He found a pair in 1924 -- a nesting pair in Florida and that was when people already thought they were extinct. I mean this was a big story at the time that, like, oh, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker's not extinct. And some people -- local taxidermists read about that in the paper and they went out and shot the birds.

  • 11:47:58


  • 11:47:59

    GALLAGHERAnd so then 11 years later when he was in Louisiana in 1935 filming those Ivory -billed Woodpeckers he was very secretive about it. He didn't tell people where he was and he'd learned his lesson.

  • 11:48:14

    REHMI should say.

  • 11:48:15

    GALLAGHERAnd they didn't -- of course, did not collect any of those birds so what he said was totally wrong.

  • 11:48:20

    REHMTo -- to Whitefish Point, Mich. good morning Jonathan.

  • 11:48:26

    JONATHANHey, good morning, Diane and Tim. It's an honor to talk to you both. I'm actually in route for a weekend of bird watching at Whitefish Point, Michigan.

  • 11:48:34

    REHMGood for you.

  • 11:48:34

    JONATHANYeah, yeah, I'm excited. And, Tim, I just want to thank you for the sense of adventure that your story both for Ivory-billed and Imperial brings to our common interest of bird watching. We have two million bird watchers here in Michigan and the average age is about 65. So in my role as director for Michigan Audubon I'm trying to bring young people into the fold all the time. And these stories are straight out of the pages of Outside Magazine and that just makes me so happy to hear and that there's still people charged up about getting out and -- despite the threats and the dangers looking for these imperiled species. So thank you very much and I'll take comments off the air.

  • 11:49:20

    REHMThanks for calling, Jonathan.

  • 11:49:22

    GALLAGHERYeah, well, thank you. I hope we can attract some more birders. We -- you know, we are getting grayer now and we need some young blood in the activity.

  • 11:49:31

    REHMDo you think it is something that people of our age are more interested in than young people generally?

  • 11:49:42

    GALLAGHERWell, I mean I've been afraid that as people spend more time, you know, young people spend more time sitting at the compute or using their iPads or, you know, whatever they're having a virtual life. They're not getting out in nature and that's the only thing I worry about, you know. You hear about nature deficit disorder and I think it's real and I think we do need to get young people to go out more.

  • 11:50:10

    REHMSo what is the Cornell Ornithology Lab doing to try to promote birding?

  • 11:50:19

    GALLAGHERI mean we have all kinds of programs. We even got, you know, curricula for schools. You can go, you know, learn more about birds and we've got our all about birds website. People can learn about all their local birds and listen to their vocalizations and see pictures of them.

  • 11:50:39

    REHMYou know what you ought to do you ought to establish a summer camp for young people who would be your potential new generation of birders.

  • 11:50:55

    GALLAGHERI know. That would be good. And we do have something like that. It's kind of selective, though, only about a dozen kids can get in and they're really -- they already kind of have a hard core commitment. But I could see doing something broader like that and, you know, trying to encourage them, yeah.

  • 11:51:11

    REHMWe need something really, really worthwhile for nature in general, but certainly for young people's appreciation of nature and the world. Let's go to College Park, Md., hi, Janine.

  • 11:51:30

    JANINEHi, Diane.

  • 11:51:31


  • 11:51:31

    JANINEFirst time, long time listener.

  • 11:51:33

    REHMOh, good.

  • 11:51:34

    JANINEAnd I just wanted to tell Tim "The Grail Bird" is one of my favorite books. And I will definitely be going out and buying the new one. Also do you know Don Messersmith?

  • 11:51:45


  • 11:51:46

    JANINEHe went on one of the Cornell sponsored trips, I think, down to the area where the Ivory-billed is.

  • 11:51:50

    GALLAGHERYeah, he -- his name's familiar. I can't -- I can't place his face, though.

  • 11:51:54

    JANINEHe was an entomology professor at the University of Maryland and he said he saw one. And if he saw one I believe him.

  • 11:52:02


  • 11:52:03

    GALLAGHERI'd believe him, too.

  • 11:52:04

    REHMYeah. Thanks for calling, Janine. To Wichita, Kan. and Alice, hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:52:13

    ALICEGood morning. This program is of special interest to me because in the early '80s when my son was in grad school at Cornell he worked in the ornithology lab. And I remember that one summer he spent, I believe, most of the summer transferring recorded bird sounds by a lone ornithologist from old celluloid, I think it was, to something that would be preservable. And unfortunately when he got the project finished that ornithologist was killed in a plane crash.

  • 11:52:45

    REHMOh my.

  • 11:52:46

    ALICEAnd in my naiveté one day he had said to me, mom, Cornell has the world's largest collection of bird sounds and I kind of said well, so what's the big deal. And he said, oh, mom, you would be surprised. Biologists, linguists, all kinds of people from all over the world come to study the bird sounds. Well, how does the brain change and all of this. And I remember he also managed a concert hall at Cornell at the same time. And he said I thought we used delicate instruments to record music, but that's nothing like what it takes to record bird sounds.

  • 11:53:24

    REHMWhat a lovely comment.

  • 11:53:27

    GALLAGHERYeah. Yeah, and the person your son was talking about who was killed in a plane crash was Ted Parker who was really one of the greatest field biologists of the 20th Century. And he recorded the bulk of the recordings we have in the lab ornithology collection.

  • 11:53:44

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And speaking of bird sounds when you were on your search for the Imperial Woodpecker you had something that tried to imitate the sound you assumed, or thought, that that woodpecker would make. How did you do that?

  • 11:54:12

    GALLAGHERWell, most woodpeckers in the Campephilus genus have a real distinctive drum that they make on a tree. It goes bam, bam. It's like two -- two hits in a row and the second sound's almost like an echo of the first. And Martjan Lammertink, my colleague, actually designed this box that he puts on -- lashes to a tree. It's like a resonator and he's got, like, these two broomsticks with a pivot point in the middle. And he'll hit the thing hard and the other side of it'll swing over the top and hit it again a fraction of a second later. And it makes a perfect imitation of a Campephilus woodpecker double wrap. And so we were doing that all over those mesas we were exploring...

  • 11:54:55

    REHMIn the hopes of...

  • 11:54:57

    GALLAGHEROf hearing one respond. He tried it in Central America with the Pale-billed Woodpecker and gotten good responses, which is a relative -- a smaller Campephilus species.

  • 11:55:09

    REHMSo you end your book fairly hopeful talking about efforts to conserve the bird's habitat.

  • 11:55:20

    GALLAGHERYes. I mean that's the big hope, you know. We have -- just recently there have been things like one village throughout the drug people and they have roadblocks and they're well armed themselves, which is a little crazy. It's like vigilantes, but, you know, they were -- they're protecting their forests and everything because the drug growers, a lot of times, they'll cut down the forest and they'll grow poppy plantations there and marijuana.

  • 11:55:49

    GALLAGHERBut there's still a lot of -- I mean I've always had a hopeful attitude about everything I do. And I did become discouraged at the end worrying, even if we could find an Imperial Woodpecker nest can we do -- can we help this bird? And I don't know the answer. I think things have to improve. We have to -- and Mexico has a new president and I'm hoping -- you know, he's taken a different approach.

  • 11:56:14

    GALLAGHERI think the original approach where America encouraged Calderon to, you know, go after these drug lords and they took out these prominent people. And then it was kind of like whatever order had existed before became chaotic and there was a breakdown of law and order, not just in drug related things, but people were stealing, raping women, you know, with impunity. Police were afraid to come out of their police stations in a lot of areas. And now in those mountains you don't see any police or military up there. They're at the base of the mountains with blockades, but, yeah.

  • 11:56:51

    REHMYou don't sound too optimistic to me.

  • 11:56:55

    GALLAGHERYeah, I know. I'm hoping things will change.

  • 11:57:01

    REHMTim Gallagher his book is titled, "Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker through the Wild Sierra Madre." And I hope you listen to your wife. Wives have good instincts.

  • 11:57:20

    GALLAGHERThey do.

  • 11:57:21

    REHMThank you for being here.

  • 11:57:23

    GALLAGHERThanks, Diane, it was my pleasure.

  • 11:57:24

    REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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