Monday, August 26, 2013

George Plimpton and the Imperial Woodpecker

                          (Illustration by Don Eckelberry, from the Audubon article.)

One of my favorite popular articles about the Imperial Woodpecker was written by famed author George Plimpton for the November-December 1977 issue of Audubon. Plimpton had gone searching for the bird in Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental with his friend Victor Emanuel, the legendary birder and founder of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.  The article was titled "Un Gran Pedazo de Carne"—which literally translates "A Great Piece of Meat" and is how a man Plimpton interviewed in the Sierra Madre described an Imperial Woodpecker he had killed and eaten fourteen years earlier.

Unfortunately, Plimpton introduced some apocryphal information in this article. When he mentioned William Rhein (the man who had taken 16mm footage of a female imperial—the only photographic documentation in existence of a living Imperial Woodpecker) he misspelled his name as "Rheim." But worse, he wrote, "On Rheim's next trip into the area in 1958, he met an Indian on the trail carrying a dead imperial he had shot: that was probably one of the pair Rheim had seen in 1954. That expired bird in the Indian's hand is the last authoritative sighting [of an Imperial Woodpecker].

This information is wrong on several counts. Rhein went to Mexico not twice but three times—in 1953, '54, and '56—and never in 1958. And Rhein did not run into someone carrying a fresh-killed Imperial Woodpecker. What Plimpton may have been inaccurately reporting was something Rhein wrote in a March 1, 1962, letter to Ivory-billed Woodpecker researcher James Tanner: "In 1955 when I was unable to return to Mexico the local Indian shot the parent birds that I had localized in the previous year. When we returned in 1956 there was one lone female flying about. I obtained some poor pictures of this bird." This 1956 bird was the one that Rhein filmed and was truly the last authoritative (and only photographically documented) sighting of an Imperial Woodpecker. Plimpton repeated his error in a book review he wrote for the New York Review of Books in March 1993.

I am a great admirer of George Plimpton's writing and would not criticize him except that these errors have found their way into the scientific literature and need to be corrected. (But the Audubon article is still well worth reading.)

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