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

He began organizing our expedition in earnest. It was planned for June, during the nesting season, when the birds would remain in one area and could be observed. We would bring along a photographer and John Rowlett, an expert birdwatching friend with whom Victor was thinking of organizing birding tours on a professional basis. The two had studied birds together under Edgar Kincaid, a great naturalist and the editor of The Bird Life of Texas. Kincaid was fond of bestowing birds' names on his favorite pupils, and had done so with Emanuel and Rowlett: Victor became the hooded warbler and John the peppershrike. Kincaid himself--a great mourner of human ecological follies--likes to answer to the name "the cassowary," after the only bird that can kill and eviscerate a man, and on occasion does.

At the time of our expedition Rowlett was finishing his doctoral degree (on Wordsworth) at the University of Virginia. A good-humored, round-faced young man with a quick smile and great energy, he is equal to Emanuel in his knowledge of and enthusiasm for birds. I came to learn that his excitement at a particularly good sighting of a bird (to complement Victor's "Wow!") erupted in cries of "Yip! Yip! Yip!"--his face shining with pleasure.

I had first met Rowlett when he and Emanuel passed through New York in the winter of 1975 on a birding junket up the North Atlantic coast; their particular hope was to see both the snowy and saw-whet owls. Rowlett has a passion for owls--a fixation that started at a young age (according to Victor) because the letters o-w-1 are tucked away in his surname. We went out to Long Island to look for a saw-whet owl in the pine rows along the parkways just inland from Jones Beach. It was bitterly cold. When we reached the pines, I was asked to go in and shake some trees. The saw-whet owl often rests up against the bole of the tree, I was told, his shoulder against the bark; he is extremely hard to spot unless flushed out.

So I went into the grove and shook some of the smaller trees while the two waited outside to see if anything appeared. I worked hard at it, the soft pine needles and snow sifting down on my shoulders. No owls emerged. I was caught at my tree-shaking by a pair of strollers walking along the highway--an older couple, bundled up against the cold; they had a dog with them. I could see them, including the dog, peering into the small copse where I had just finished shaking one tree and with my hands held out in a strangler's clutch was reaching for another. The impulse was to pull back, but it would have looked as if I had been caught doing something criminal. I went ahead and shook the tree. "Anything coming out?" I cried, hoping that John or Victor would answer from the far side of the pines, which would indicate some sort of reason for my odd behavior. There was no answer. They had moved out across the dunes. I did not dare glance out at the elderly couple.

The next time Emanuel and Rowlett came to New York--our expedition definitely scheduled--was to check out the bird skins of the imperial woodpecker at the American Museum of Natural History. The three of us were taken in hand by Lester Short, a slight, quite solemn man wearing a white smock, who is one of the great authorities on the woodpeckers of the world. We were outfitted with identification badges and led into the inner reaches of the building--to what I suspect must be called "the morgue"--where ceiling-high, pale-green filing cabinets house the museum's enormous collection of bird skins. The ornithologist pulled out a metal tray and set it on a windowsill. The wan winter sunlight fell on the bird skins of a dozen or more of our native ivorybills, and three skins of the imperial, almost a third larger than the American bird.

A bird skin, whatever its size, is not the most prepossessing of objects; it looks rather like a cocoon, cotton showing at the bird's eyes, an identification tag attached to its claws - a moribund sight. But the reactions from Emanuel and Rowlett were predictable, at least to me, as if Dr. Short had unveiled the treasures of King Tutankhamen. I do not know what the ornithologist made of the chorus of "Yip! Yip! Yip!" "Wow! Wow! Wow!" and the triumphant stomping of feet. His eyes must have widened, at least slightly. He lifted out one of the birds. Victor and John posed for photographs with it between them, holding the woodpecker in profile so that the crest and the long bill showed. In the photographs their faces are ecstatic. The woodpecker, held with its bill tilted slightly upward, looks snooty and quite superior.

Three days after our inspection of the imperial skins in the museum, I received an anxious call from the secretary of the museum's director. My wife and I had gone south for a week at the J. H. Whitney plantation in Thomasville, Georgia. A butler approached during tea and said there was a call from New York. "We have just the slightest problem," the secretary said to me over the phone. "We are missing one of the imperial woodpecker bird skins."

"What?"

"You don't suppose it might have been borrowed?" she asked.

"Borrowed?" I was aghast.

"We thought you might know," she was saying.

"Are you sure? Perhaps the museum should count the woodpeckers again. Maybe one of them fell down behind ... er ... a bookcase," I suggested lamely.

I paced around when she hung up. I speculated what The New York Times would do with such a story: The Case of the Kidnapped Woodpecker.

I called up Victor in Houston. His voice was full of excitement about his research on the imperial. Moreover, he had some new bird tapes he wanted to play for me over the phone.

"Victor," I interrupted him. "They seem to be missing a bird skin from the museum. An imperial."

There was a pause at the other end. "Well, that's odd," Victor said.

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