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 long haul and we stop at Cebadilla, a small ranch set in a meadow at the edge of the pine forest where Antonio had seen the pair of imperials--the matrimonio--feeding in the dead pines. Giant boulders stand about. Horses are saddled up, the leather squeaking as they shift their weight on their haunches. A cow is close to calving in a corral, and the men are waiting around to help. Victor asks them about the imperial. Yes, they were here, but not recently--six years ago. The pitoreal was up along the ridges above Cebadilla, but they were all killed. The young men killed them and put their feathers in their hats.

Six years! Victor is discouraged. "Sounds bad, doesn't it?'" He wanders off; he thinks he may have heard a parrot, but a red-tailed hawk goes over, its shrill cry piercing the mountain air. The wind soughs through the trees. It's a gloomy place.

On a ridge on the far side of Cebadilla, John stands on a boulder and tries the call of the imperial, directing it into a gallery of dead trees across the canyon. It was always moving to hear him do this. He had adapted his version of the cry--a sort of nasal gooselike honk trailing off mournfully--from a recording of the American ivorybill from the Cornell University edition of "Florida Bird Songs." John takes a breath and starts again, holding his hands in front of his nose as if to protect it from the cold. A red-shafted flicker responds. John looks over at us. "We are summoning up the spirits," he says. "But hell is quiet." He tries again, shifting the register slightly.

"That's better," Victor says.

A Steller's jay comes to look for us. He enlivens the area for a while, chattering and curious, and then he is gone, sneaking off through the trees, and we hear the wind in the pines again.

Up in the mountains we have reached a sawmill settlement named Pescados, which means fish. A small stream runs through it, but it is hard to imagine that fish were ever in residence. We heard the sound of the saws of Pescados from a long distance, above the roar of our truck engine--a high metallic penetrating whine that made the pine groves, as we passed them, seem desolate and fragile. Nothing appears to move in them, not even the juncos, as if within its perimeter the sound were a slow, permeating force like a gas. Victor calls the sound "the death knell."

Actually, the Mexican lumber companies have been sensible about their timber. Rather than slashing away whole mountainsides of forest, they winkle the enormous trees out from among their neighbors and let the forest stand. In some areas the underbrush is cleared and stacked in piles to lessen the fire hazard, so that one walks through groves as open and clear as those of an English beech forest. In theory, the lumber companies' practice of select cutting should allow the imperial ivorybill to adapt. Indeed, Tanner, the great woodpecker expert, never thought that the logging operations were responsible for the imperial's problems. The disturbance caused by a logging operation (if one could, like an imperial woodpecker, witness it all from the top of a dead pine) would be as follows: the slow detachment of a pine top from its fellows, the thud of its body stretching itself out on the forest floor, a fluttering afterwash of pine needles, and then it would be peaceful for a time. But perhaps even that was enough of a psychic wrench to the woodpecker to send it hastening out over the horizon. And one might wonder what the noise of the saws would do--that pervasive ripping whine that started up not long after dawn and lasted until sundown along with all the accompanying racket: the motors of the big diesel trucks working their way up and down the serpentine logging roads, and then the noises of the settlement itself, the banging of pots, the cries of children, the steady barking of dogs.

The houses of Pescados were perched in a row along the banks of the stream--usually a rickety porch out in front with a bench. Animals were everywhere: pigs and tough-minded, ever-angry chickens, mongrels on the run from them. One of the houses had been taken over by a white horse. He stood in the doorway and looked out. Under one porch I noticed a new 10-speed bicycle--an incongruous method of transportation on those rough logging roads. No one at the sawmill had seen the pitoreal. "Nada"--a shrug of the shoulders.

We camped on a ridge a few miles from Pescados, pitching the two two-man tents in a clearing overlooking great basins of rock and pine. The rain clouds came in over the ridges behind us. Even in the rain John Rowlett was out making squeaking sounds with his mouth against the palm of his hand to stir up birds: towhees, painted redstarts, juncos, Coues' flycatchers appeared, but though woodpeckers might answer to his squeaking--at least the smaller ones--none came around. He shifted to the imitation of the pygmy owl (toot, toot, toot). No woodpeckers. No owls. But the underbrush around him seemed busy with birds.

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