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

A couple of months later we had a reunion of sorts. We were sitting in a quite fancy Houston restaurant with John Rowlett, his wife, Abbie, and a friend of theirs. The talk had been lively, hardly a moment when we were not reminiscing about the trip or talking about birds, in particular the imperial woodpecker. I asked about the call they had heard on the ridge in the predawn darkness. Victor leaned across the table, drew a breath, and produced the following sound: Waaaa-waaa-waaaa! The candle in the centerpiece wavered alarmingly. He paused and then resumed. Waaaa-waaa-waaaa! Heads turned at nearby tables. "Really quite different from the tinny trumpet sound one reads about in the descriptions," Victor was explaining. "It's not that big, nasal, nuthatchlike sound. Listen to it again. Waaaa-waaa-waaaa! It could have been a mammal--a ring-tailed cat perhaps."

We all looked attentive. I didn't dare glance at the adjoining tables. I gazed at John. He lifted his shoulders slightly. I wondered vaguely if he was going to lean across the table and dispute Victor's version with his own.

Victor--apparently stimulated by the focus on birdcalls--called for our attention. "I want you to listen to this." He reached down and from under his chair produced a tape recorder, which he put on the table next to his plate. "I'm going to play the call of the horned guan--no mistaking this sound!" He explained to those of us at the table who were ignorant of the species that the horned guan was a rare turkey-size bird living in the mountain canopies of Chiapas in southern Mexico; it is distinguished by a red, popsiclelike protuberance sticking out of its forehead. Victor fiddled with his recorder: we heard first the buzz of insects, an odd froglike croak, and then the restaurant was deluged by a loud, crackling, castanetlike sound, very much like the rattle produced by a New Year's Eve noisemaker: "Isn't that great!" Victor shouted above the racket.

In the restaurant, heads were turned, not only from nearby tables, but along the wall people were standing up, craning to see. When the horned guan had finished his performance, we heard the faint hum of insects, and then Victor clicked off the machine. There were a few seconds of absolute quiet before the buzz of conversation rose around us. I do not think either Victor or John was aware of the commotion that had been caused.

When the coffee came, I could not resist asking John--since birdcalls seemed the order of the evening--if he would give us once again the call of the imperial. He stood up from the table to do it--an odd and touching gesture, as if he were about to deliver a tribute. I have no idea whether he did it consciously, but it was as if he were standing to play Taps. At the first notes of that strange gooselike honking, I felt the stirring of tears. When John was finished, he sat down and looked around with his usual broad grin. But I remember seeing a quick change of expression on his face, as if he had seen something on ours that reflected the poignancy of that moment.

This story ran in the November-December 1977 issue as "Un Gran Pedazo de Carne."

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.