Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Empire of the Imperial Woodpecker

The empire of the Imperial Woodpecker is a remote landscape, high in the mountains of northwestern Mexico—a place of lofty, old-growth pines and rugged oaks swept by powerful winds, rains, and snowstorms. Here these giant woodpeckers lived and evolved across the millennia, subsisting on grubs as big as your thumb that they reached by prying off slabs of thick pine bark with their chisel-like white bills.

                      (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

These mighty birds thrived well into the mid-20th century, but then they ran into trouble. Although the plateau pine-oak forests were remote, labor was cheap. Logging companies moved into the Imperial Woodpeckers vast domain, and the mighty pines came tumbling down. 

   (Photo by Tim Gallagher)

Not only that, but the dirt roads the logging crews cut through the forests opened up these pristine areas to subsistence hunters, some of whom killed Imperial Woodpeckers for food, for the rumored medicinal values of the birds' feathers, or just out of curiosity. 

By the mid-1950s, the Imperial Woodpecker had vanished across most of its range. Today it's hard to find anyone below the age of 70 who even remember the birds, even those living in isolated villages, where people still live in the old ways, in adobe huts or log cabins, without any modern conveniences. But I did find a number of people who had more recent credible sightings, and their stories are what kept me going as I traveled through the high country of the vast Sierra Madre. 

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