Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Largest Woodpecker That Ever Lived

It’s amazing to see the difference in size between Imperial, Ivory-billed, and Pileated woodpeckers, which Bobby Harrison captured well in this photo he took of some specimens at the American Museum of Natural History. A whopping two feet in length, the Imperial easily dwarfs its closest cousin, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (center). As for the common Pileated Woodpecker (top)—well, it doesn’t even come close.

The first time I ever saw some Imperial Woodpecker specimens, during a visit to Harvard’s bird collection, I was stunned by their beauty and majesty. I knew right then that I would someday go off in search of these birds. There were so many questions to answer about them. Why had they vanished so quickly and completely? Were they already extinct? Or were they still hanging on in some of the remotest reaches of Mexico’s mighty Sierra Madre? And most important, could they be saved?

    (Photo by Bobby Harrison)

These were a few of the questions I hoped to address when I began my quest. I had planned to start searching nearly a decade ago, but my friends in Mexico kept telling me that it was too dangerous at the moment, because of all the drug-growing activity and violence in the mountains, and I should try the following year instead. But each year, the level of danger seemed to grow astronomically. I finally decided I couldn’t wait any longer—the Imperial Woodpecker couldn’t wait any longer—and one bright, sunny morning in May, I crossed the border at Columbus, New Mexico, and headed south to the Sierra Madre.

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