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

Victor went on to discuss the patience required of birdwatching and the inevitable vicissitudes. Our disappointment looking for the imperial woodpecker was not uncommon. He cited the example of Alexander Skutch, a botanist-philosopher who left the University of Maryland to wander about Central America. Skutch had stopped in a wilderness area of Costa Rica that caught his fancy and had never moved on. He had written a book entitled A Naturalist in Costa Rica, which Victor described as "lovely" and from which he could quote: "In that casual manner I came to the valley where I was to spend the next 30 years ... How can I who has been accustomed to these sounds [a valley stream] live among the noises of the city?"

Skutch's particular strength as a naturalist was his ability to devote himself to a near-microscopic study of what was a relatively small stand of property. He was able, for example, to sit for days at a time beside a bird's nest and take notes ("Female comes to nest at 7:01 with white grub"). His great frustration was a pair of nightingale wrens nesting on his property year after year. The nest of that secretive bird is one of the ornithological mysteries: no one has ever observed the bird on the nest, or even discovered the nest itself. Skutch spent 30 nesting seasons looking for the bird's home without luck.

Was the bird called the nightingale wren because of his song, I wanted to know.

It is an odd bird, Victor answered. In Peru the nightingale wren has a low monotone of a call, appallingly dull, which he repeats after a rather long pause of 13 seconds. Philosopher Charles Hartshorne, the great birdsong expert, says this time span is needed so the wren can forget the dullness of his call. On the other hand, in Mexico the nightingale wren's song is superb, a stunning use of the chromatic scale.

"Thirty years looking for a nest. It must have driven him nuts," I said.

"At least he knew it was there!" Victor replied. He looked pensive and subdued. Perhaps he would not have been had we been looking for a species we knew existed or something like the nest of the nightingale wren. In that case the worst emotion we could have suffered would be the frustration of not finding what we knew was there. But with the imperial, the infinitely sadder possibility was that the woods were truly empty of them, that we had arrived too late. "When I was a boy," Victor said, "I remember mourning that I hadn't been born early enough to see the buffalo. For some reason, I thought it was extinct. Of course, it isn't, but I remember the feeling, and it's the feeling I have now about the imperial."

"Well, let's hope there are as many imperials left as buffalo," John said gaily.

Heavy rain last night. Fitful, tossed sleep. The drivers got so cold out in the truck that they were up at 3:30 a.m., shouting, "Guacas! Guacas!" and blowing the horn and beating on the truck's tin roof with their fists, good-naturedly mocking us. No one was much amused. The purple martins began a predawn chorus almost as heavy as the sound of the rain. Through it I heard a long, descending birdcall, infinitely sad. I sat bolt upright, my head indenting the damp skin of the tent, but happily I realized before getting up and pounding on Victor's tent that what I had heard was the distant crow of a rooster, just then stirring down the road in some sawmill settlement. Whew!

We have spotted two band-tailed pigeons. The pair dropped out of a tree and throttled across the emptiness of a canyon with such a felicity of speed and maneuverability that they flew as one does in dreams, mocking the ruggedness of the area with their hurtling, confident flight. The sight of them raised a hearty "Yip! Yip!" from Rowlett, for they too are scarce--shot for food, of course--and they are on what Victor calls the "leading edge," the encroaching force that eventually will submerge them unless they are able to call on a mite of the resilience that marks their city cousins, the rock doves.

We are beginning to get angry with the pitoreal. The country is so sublime--incredible vistas of pine and butte and canyon--that it seems contrary and ill-feeling of the bird to have packed up and left it. Tanner had speculated that each nesting pair of imperials needed 640 acres (one square mile) in which to function properly. Every time we look out from a ridge we can see thousands of perfectly good acres, fine dead trees by the hundreds--wild country, and only parts of it subjected to and annoyed by the thin metallic whine of distant saws. "Overreacting" we have decided.

As a result, the bird's name has gone through a transformation. We started off calling him the imperial ivory-billed, very formal, and relishing the name; once in Mexico we shifted to the Spanish pitoreal for a while, which rolls off the tongue nicely; in English we sometimes reverently called him The Big (or Great) Bird; often we simply referred to him as "the bird." But now, after so many disappointments, he is occasionally referred to somewhat disparagingly as "the woodpecker"--which is a word without much majesty--or often just "he," and even "it." ("What are you so solemn about? It, I suppose.")

"Sometimes I think certain birds give I up," Victor said. "The Carolina parakeet. What a neat bird, and to think he's lost! But somewhere along the line he threw in the sponge. He should have been able to survive. They went after him with guns for destroying the crops, but a lot of other crop-destroyers have survived--the red­winged blackbird, for example."

The intensity of the search does not slacken, however. We scan the dead pines. John says that probably no one on earth has inspected so many dead pines with such care. We can always pride ourselves on that distinction.

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