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

I looked into the bird guide to see what Roger Tory Peterson had to say about the thick-billed parrots. "Rare and decreasing." One theory for their difficulties is that they use old imperial woodpecker holes for nesting, and that they are suffering because of the imperial's demise. Victor is more sanguine about the parrots. He feels their beaks are powerful enough to enlarge flicker holes for the purpose of nesting and that the species is probably more numerous than thought. He had seen a flock of 100 to the south of us in the state of Durango.

Still, the sighting is a great one and plenty of cause for jubilation. The only parrot I had ever seen outdoors was my grandmother's macaw, which was let out of its cage from time to time at her country estate in Massachusetts. It would fly up onto the tennis court wiring behind the bangboard, where it learned to teeter back and forth and on odd occasions call out: "Love-40!"

So we watched John's excitement with empathetic understanding. He and Victor think of the guaca as one of the Big Three they hope to see during our expedition: the others are the eared trogon (there are three trogon species in the vicinity) and, of course, the imperial woodpecker. The day had started auspiciously. It would be hard to imagine the excitement if the boy's report of the imperial proved to be verifiable.

We are at the spot--much lower down the mountains than anyone expected. But it is promising. Plenty of tall, dead trees. The area is spectacular, with big rocks, including one giant boulder shaped like a sleeping lion looking out across the canyons to the pine ridges 10 miles away. John refers to the area as being "very birdy." Four acorn woodpeckers are working the thermal currents rising off the rock slopes; the flickers are in the pines behind us.

The "boy" who saw the imperial has turned up. He is, in fact, an adult--a logging truck driver, hatless, mustachioed, with a two-day growth of black whiskers, and as he smiles, a large gold tooth appears in the front of his mouth. His name is David Solis. He corrects what we have heard about his sighting. It occurred 12 days before, and he had seen the bird in a green pine. He had heard its call; his imitation produced a curious cooing sound, rather like a mourning dove's. Victor cocked his head and said it didn't sound right. John gave his imperial version--his woeful nasal honk--and David looked skeptical.

Victor produced the Peterson Field Guide to Mexican Birds and, opening it to the color plates of the woodpeckers, he tried to throw David off by pointing to the pale-billed woodpecker. David wouldn't fall for it. No. His finger moved across the plate, vacillating between the imperial (my heart jumped) and the lineated, a large lowland woodpecker that looks something like the pileated of the United States.

"Well, we have a problem here," Victor finally said, turning to us. "The call is wrong, and he doesn't distinguish the great amount of white in the pitoreal's wing when he flies. Moreover, the size he indicates seems small, the size of a crow, and twice as large as any of the other woodpeckers still isn't big enough for the imperial. The main problem"--Victor pointed around the clearing at the scrub growth--"is that we're too low. We've come down into the lineated's range. And I think that's the bird he's been telling us about."

"Ask him about the biggest woodpecker he's ever seen," John suggested.

Victor put the question to David; we watched Victor's eyes as the reply came in a torrent of Spanish, David obviously describing something that had happened some time before. "Oh, my God!" Victor exclaimed at one point. When he turned to summarize what David had told him, his expression seemed dazed. "Yes, 14 years ago he remembers a much bigger woodpecker. There were two of them higher up in the mountains. He shot one of them with a .22 rifle. They had it for supper. He thinks his mother may still have the bird skin." We stared in horror at David's gold tooth as he smiled good-naturedly at us. "Yes,"  Victor went on. "You are looking at a man who saw, killed, and ate a pitoreal. He said it was un gran pedazo de carne--a great piece of meat." Victor said he couldn't bring himself to ask him how it had tasted.

At the fire tonight, Victor told a story about Harold Axtell, a great birder who had 695 species on his U.S. life list--an enormous number--and how on a birding expedition in Texas the group had spotted a brown jay on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. Some people feel that standing in the United States and spotting a bird across a border constitutes a legitimate sighting. But Axtell was a purist in such matters: He didn't feel he could put the bird on his life list until he had coaxed it into the United States. He stood at the river's edge and began imitating the call of the great horned owl in the hope of enticing the bird out of Mexico. The group could see the jay getting agitated in the trees on the far bank, some 200 yards away, and then suddenly it began coming across the water. A great cheer went up when it landed on a nearby tree, and a couple of people said it was the most exciting moment of their entire birdwatching careers.

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