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

"They seem to think we're responsible," I said, "that one of us might have 'borrowed' it."

"I can't imagine," Victor said. "I'm thinking back. You left for lunch. We stayed for a while with the imperials, and then we examined the skin of a harpy eagle. Marvelous bird! Marvelous bird! Terrific claws. Huge! Very easy to see how they can carry off a monkey."

"Victor," I interrupted again.

"Oh, yes, the bird skin. No, I can't imagine," he said. I almost caught myself saying, "Well, could you look around just in case," as if the bird skin of the imperial woodpecker were something that might drop out of the lining of an overcoat, like a set of car keys.

"Are you calling from New York?" Victor was saying.

"I'm in Thomasville, Georgia."

"Thomasville! You must look for the red-cockaded woodpecker," Victor exclaimed. "Oh, yes. Right there. Great bird. Rare and very specialized ... can nest only on a tree suffering from red heart disease ... you must rush out and look for him."

That evening I kept recalling a friend from my undergraduate days at Cambridge University who had "borrowed'" a Giacometti statuette from a London museum, sweeping it off a pedestal and tucking it into his clothes. He had it in his rooms at college for a week or so, staring at it, touching it, and then after a time, his thirst for the object "having been slaked," as he put it, he somehow got the work back into the museum. He rationalized to those of us who knew he had it: "I love it; no one feels as strongly as I do about it." We were thrilled and aghast, perhaps as much for the intensity of his feelings as for being accessories after the fact.

The next morning the museum secretary was on the phone. She was almost hopelessly contrite. How could such a confusion have arisen?

It wasn't actually a woodpecker that was missing, she told me, it was a paper on the bird, a treatise. On checking they realized they had given it to the two young birdwatchers without making a copy; somehow the whole thing had become garbled, and it was thought the woodpecker itself was missing. She hoped no one had thought the museum or Dr. Short was accusing anybody.

I tried to calm her by telling her that the enthusiasm of my two friends was such that it would not have surprised me in the least if they had taken not only a bird but a whole tray of them, and the harpy eagle, and Dr. Short as well.

Victor was relieved when he heard the news. "I'm glad they've accounted for their bird skins," he said. "They must be happy. But think of us. We're going to be looking for the real thing!" His voice was exultant.

Two of us (Terry Moore, a Tucson-based photographer, and I) flew to the state of Chihuahua to meet Victor and John at Tutuaca. The plane, a Cessna 180 adapted to set down in small corners, was owned and flown by Ike Russell, a tall, laconic sort in his sixties, who had flown Victor on the reconnaissance trip. We flew two and a half hours south of the border across increasingly rough country and set down, the wheels seeming to sift through the tops of the pines, onto the small dirt airstrip, banking in like a waterfowl setting its wings to drop onto a pond.

Victor and John were waiting, binoculars dangling from their necks. They had set up camp in a tin shed on a slope above the airstrip, which looked down on Tutuaca, its few houses spread across a valley surrounded by great buttelike, heavily pined hills. The first birds I saw in Tutuaca gave the impression we were in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: robins, barn swallows, shrikes, a red-tailed hawk, meadowlarks, nighthawks beginning to whirl overhead in the evening. Victor, to my relief, was able to point out a Cassin's kingbird and a raven coming over a ridge. One gives the raven an extra look because the great pitoreal is the same size.

Not much to Tutuaca itself. The population was once 400 but has dwindled to 100. The big topic is obviously the gringos looking for the pitoreal, and some of the locals have congregated around our shed, lounging near the door and occasionally leaning in and solemnly looking at us. They are fancied-up in their dress: print shirts, worn outside their belts, and tight, often crease-pressed trousers. Many are going to a fiesta at a sawmill up in the hills. The pastime among the men when they tire of staring at the visitors is to spar sometimes as many as four or five pairs squared off against each other, shadowboxing up and down the road. The girls in bright pants stand together in couples, looking on with arms looped around each other's waists. Trucks with girls standing in the back go by on the way up to the sawmill. The girls wave, and the driver blows the horn. Blowing horns, especially in the big diesel trucks that carry the lumber down from the sawmills, is another local custom in Tutuaca; the blast moves in and out of the surrounding hills, picking up lovely overtones and subtleties.

We have been receiving reports about the imperial woodpecker. Victor is encouraged. My own suspicion was that once the word got around the area about the four Americans looking for the pitoreal, a lot of hasty planning would go on around the kitchen tables and we would be deluged with reports and offers (for a sum of money) to lead us directly to a place which was stiff with pitoreals ("My sister knows secret place, not far at all"), but to date there had been none of this. Victor is especially pleased by the accuracy of the dimensions of the birds described. Americans have a tendency to exaggerate and thrust their hands apart. Mexicans, Victor thinks, are more accurate; they hold chickens, they know the size of things.

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.