In Search of the Imperial Woodpecker

Painting by Don Eckelberry
Photograph by Terrence Moore

In Search of the Imperial Woodpecker

A famous author and a renowned birder team up to seek the world's largest woodpecker, the legendary pitoreal.

By George Plimpton
Published: November-December 1977

This story ran in the November-December 1977 issue of Audubon.

It was Victor Emanuel, my birdwatching friend, who first suggested looking for the imperial woodpecker. I had an idea about doing a series of animal quests, and I had asked him what bird would be most exciting to search for--one rare, or even thought to be extinct. After thinking for a second or so, Victor snapped his fingers and said, "The imperial ivory-billed woodpecker!" Flinging his hands apart like an angler talking about a salmon, he went on to say that the bird was the largest of the woodpeckers, as large as a raven, and that the last verified reports of its existence had come out of the mountains of western Mexico in the early 1950s. But there had been scattered reports since. He would check into them, and if there was the slightest chance of finding the bird, he would arrange a small expedition for us.

Victor had already enjoyed the heady intoxication of observing a species thought by many to be extinct; he was one of the first to identify the Eskimo curlew when that bird--to the astonishment of ornithologists whose records showed a last sighting back in 1945--turned up in a plowed field on Galveston Island, Texas, in the spring of 1959. Victor told me that "it was like seeing a dinosaur." The thought of going after the imperial woodpecker brought back that same feeling of excitement.

I first met Victor in 1972 when I joined his Christmas Bird Count in Freeport, Texas, which regularly either wins or comes in a close second in the nationwide contest for the record number of birds spotted over a 24-hour period. A poor and confused birder, I went along as a journalist. I was entranced not only by his patience--expert birders can be extremely aloof with amateurs--but by his enthusiasm. It is all-consuming. When he comes to New York for a visit, he arrives at our apartment with a pair of binoculars hanging from his neck; he is forever on the lookout. Presumably, in the city, there is always a chance of a peregrine falcon dropping from a window ledge onto a pigeon. He wears the binoculars around the apartment and scans the East River, which flows by our windows. He opens and burrows through the contents of his briefcase--bird books, tapes of birdcalls, checklists, feathers. He hands us one of the feathers. "Now, what sort of feather is this?" he asks. We look at it gravely, spinning it between thumb and forefinger, and then give up. He identifies it as being from a species of Mexican goatsucker. "Oh." He puts a cassette of birdcalls on the tape machine; the room quivers with the sound turned up to full volume. Even the most hideous squawks light his face with pleasure. "Wow! ["Wow!" is a favorite exclamation.] Wow! Listen to that! That's the call of the black-and-white owl. Mexican bird. Great!" Whoop, whoop, whoop. The owl sounds astonishingly like the alarm Klaxon of a naval destroyer moving through a crowded harbor. "Isn't that great?"

My five-year-old daughter, Medora, loves him; he is one of the few adults she reminisces about. "He drinks tea and he talks and talks and talks." When he leaves he is inclined to forget things--a sock, three or four feathers, glove, a bird book, a cassette discovered only when the machine is turned on a few weeks later to provide music for a cocktail party and suddenly the cry of the black-and-white owl rattles through the living room. My daughter comes running. "Victor's here," she calls out happily as she looks for him.

The thought of going into the mountains of Mexico after the imperial woodpecker produced a predictable effect on Victor: He began sending me letters outlining plans, and pamphlets describing the bird. Suffused with information, and in spite of myself, I began talking about the bird to people who probably were not interested. ("Hey, I'm setting off any day now to look for a huge woodpecker.")

It was huge--almost two feet in height, the male with a red crest and the female with a great recurved black crest. Its habitat differed markedly from that of the American ivory-billed woodpecker, which, of course, prefers (or preferred, since it has not been authoritatively spotted since the late 1950s) the swampy forests of the southeastern United States. The imperial is a bird of the high pine country--upwards of 8,000 feet--of which the topographical maps showed great areas in western Mexico. But inevitably the literature forwarded by Victor indicated the paucity of the imperial's numbers. Even as far back as the July 1898 issue of The Auk, E.W. Nelson wrote of a Mexican trip: "In company with two natives, my assistant and I rode over the undulating mountain summits for an entire day on a fruitless quest for these birds. Several species of pines, oaks, and madrones made up the forest, and beautiful little parklike basins open here and there forming ideal spots for the big woodpeckers, but we failed to see one."

If the birds ever were relatively common in their habitat, they probably were killed off by guns--for food, since they were large enough to provide about as much sustenance as a squirrel, for their decorative feathers, and for more esoteric uses. For instance, the Tarahumara Indians of southern Sonora and Chihuahua matted the imperial's feathers into earmuffs to prevent air from "getting inside" and causing "aches and pains of the head."

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