(Photo by Tim Gallagher)
I spent quite a bit of time traveling through the high country of the Sierra Madre Occidental in the state of Chihuahua and interviewed several people in the area about the Imperial Woodpecker. One of the most interesting was Bill Martineau, now in his early seventies, whose family was among the Mormon settlers who founded Colonia Chuhuichupa in the 1880s. The Mormons have now mostly left the old mountain colonies such as Chuhuichupa, Pacheco, Garcia.
(Bill Martineau; photo by Tim Gallagher)
(Bill Martineau; photo by Tim Gallagher)
"The Martineau's were one of the first Mormon families to settle in Chuhuichupa, and I was the last one to leave," he told me, laughing. He has amazing memories of what the old-growth pine forests were like when he was a boy in the 1940s. "It was a paradise on Earth," he said, and described enormous sylvan giants rising high above the forest floor. When they were cut, it took an entire logging truck to carry each one out, one massive log at a time.
Few people have spent as much time in the old-growth forest of the Sierra Madre as Martineau. When he was just three or four years old, his father would tie him to the saddle of a horse so he wouldn't fall off and then take him along as he tended his cattle in the high country. Sometimes the elder Martineau would lose track of Bill, but apparently he never worried about him because the horse knew the way home.
When I asked him about the Imperial Woodpecker, Martineau described the bird perfectly, including its call, and told me a fascinating story from his boyhood. An American had approached his father in 1948, asking him if he could show him some imperial woodpeckers. Martineau's father told the man he knew where some of these birds lived in the high country above Chuhuichupa, and he took him on a several-hours-long ride into the mountains to a place named, appropriately enough, Pitoreal Pass. (The Imperial Woodpecker’s common name in Mexico is Pitoreal.) Young Martineau came along for the ride. Tragically, they found an Imperial Woodpecker lying dead at the base of its nest tree—a huge pine snag with a nest hole on the trunk, high above them.
Curious what might be inside the cavity, the elder Martineau tied two lariats together and attached a small log to one end, which he threw over a limb above the nest hole. He then fashioned a sling for Bill, tied the other end to his saddle horn, and backed up the horse, hoisting his eight-year-old son more than 60 feet in the air. "You fall out of the sling and you're dead," he shouted to his young son. He finally got him right beside the nest hole, and the boy reached inside. He pulled two partially feathered young from the nest. They were already dead though still warm to the touch, he told me. Perhaps both parents had been shot, and the young woodpeckers starved.
The American broke down and wept as he saw them. "The birds are going to go extinct, and there's nothing I can do about it," he said as he sat on a fallen log, covering his face with his hands as tears streamed down his cheeks.
A couple months after I interviewed Martineau, I was looking through the bird collection at the San Diego Natural History Museum when one of the Imperial Woodpecker specimens caught my eye. Specimen number 29855 was collected by W. M. Fuelscher in the high country not far from Chuhuichupa, which was spelled phonetically as “Chewy-Choopa” on the tag. It had been added to the collection in 1949—very late for an Imperial Woodpecker specimen, most of which were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I thought immediately about the story Martineau had told me. Now, what I’d like to know is whether specimen 29855 at the San Diego Natural History Museum is the same adult Imperial Woodpecker that he and his father and the other man found in 1948 and whether the mystery American is W. M. Fuelscher. The bird was collected in the same general area at the same general time. And according to the museum’s curator of birds, this was the only specimen the collection ever obtained from W. M. Fuelscher.
So far, I haven't been able to find out anything else about the man. There’s a historical landmark called the Fuelscher House in San Diego, but I couldn't find any current residents in the area with that name. Going through some death records I did find a William Fuelscher who died in 1972 at the age of 77 in Southern California, who may or may not have been the person who brought the specimen to the museum. Perhaps we’ll never know the full story.