In Search of the Imperial Woodpecker

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

Whatever had caused the species' diminution, according to Victor's notes, the bird had just about disappeared. In 1954 a dentist named W.L. Rheim found a pair of imperial woodpeckers 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Durango, but he was unable to photograph them. (This was the locale, incidentally, of much of John Huston's great film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) On Rheim's next trip into the area, in 1958, he met an Indian on the trail carrying a dead imperial he had shot; this was probably one of the pair Rheim had seen in 1954. That expired bird in the Indian's hand is the last authoritative sighting, according to such woodpecker experts as James T. Tanner of the University of Tennessee and Lester Short of the American Museum of Natural History.

But Victor had heard some interesting rumors--the most intriguing one concerning a group of Mexican biology students who, in October 1973, purportedly had discovered several pairs of imperial woodpeckers in the mountains near the Barranca de Cobre (Copper Canyon), an enormous natural excavation about 40 miles from Chihuahua, which is considerably north of Durango. Victor checked out the story with Bernardo Villa, one of the leading naturalists in Mexico, who was not aware of any such sightings but suggested getting in touch with Starker Leopold, the great naturalist and author of The Wildlife of Mexico: The Game Birds and Mammals.

It turned out that Leopold had not heard of the Mexican biology students, but he had an interesting suggestion. He advised Victor to contact an old rancher named Tinker (the brother of the Tinker of Tinker to Evers to Chance baseball renown), who had lived in the mountains of western Mexico for years. The crusty, hermitlike, wandering figure had hiked alone with his mule trains into the imperial's range and no doubt knew more about the bird's habitat than anyone except the Indians. Leopold actually had seen a photograph of the imperial taken by Tinker. At present Tinker was living in Rialto, near Los Angeles.

Victor phoned him. At first Tinker was very friendly. "Yes, I know the imperial--the pitoreal, the Mexicans call him," he said. "Many times I have seen them around the trout streams in the mountains." Yes, he had taken a photograph of one and had given it to the Museum of Natural History at Santa Barbara. Moreover, he had killed one with a .410 shotgun, and the specimen was in the same museum.

When had Tinker last seen the imperial, Victor asked, barely able to contain his excitement.

Tinker replied he had seen one in the summer of 1975, when he was in the area on a pack trip.

I was not privy to the telephone conversation, but I would assume that at this point Emanuel produced an extremely loud "Wow!"

Would Tinker consider a small expedition to look for the bird? Why not? He was quite agreeable. He suggested itinerary: cross the border to Madera and from there take a pack trip by mule up the headwaters of the Yaqui River to a little community named Estrellita. Victor was surprised. On his maps the distances seemed vast, certainly by mule, and curiously he could not find the name Estrellita on any of his charts.

Then one day Tinker telephoned to announce that he would have to undergo surgery to remove a cataract from one of his eyes and would not be able to go. Victor expressed sympathy and disappointment; still, the rancher could be of great help. Where, for example, had he seen the pitoreal the summer before?

Well, Tinker wasn't sure. He'd have to consult his notes.

Victor said he had not been able to find Estrellita on his maps.

"Well, it's a vast country, Mr. Emanuel."

"Where is the nearest mountain?" Victor asked.

"It's all one vast mountain range, Mr. Emanuel," Tinker said.

"We have a pilot."

"Well, if he knows the country, he knows where the woodpecker is."

At this point--with Tinker out of the picture--Victor decided the only sensible course was to fly over the general area in the state of Chihuahua that Tinker had described and look for the high pine habitat where one might expect to find the imperial woodpecker. He reconnoitered the country in a small plane piloted by a longtime bush pilot named Ike Russell--looking down on a vast, somewhat sere landscape of barranca and scrub country, until they came across a great ridge, heavily forested with pine, which ran like a spine 30 miles toward the airstrip at Tutuaca.

They landed here--the small settlement is the center of sawmill operations in the surrounding high country--and inquired about the bird. The people gathered. Much shaking of heads. The bird had been seen in the vicinity six years before. Nothing since. Nada, nada. Victor wrote me movingly of how the older people in the region seemed slightly shy and ill at ease when asked about the imperial--as if they knew that something distinctive had gone from their forests. Many of them said: "Habia mucho" ("There were many"), and then they shook their heads. A group talking to Ike Russell spoke of the woodpecker as the "bird with the marble beak," and then one of them said, "But he flees ... he is a flee-er."

Victor was encouraged, however, by the terrain and the fact that no one had been in the area specifically to look for the bird. "That really surprises me," he told me over the phone. "This great bird might be only 50 miles from the United States border, and yet so few have looked for it. I mean, it's not as if the bird lived in Borneo."

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