This story ran in the November-December 1977 issue of Audubon.
It was Victor Emanuel, my birdwatching friend, who first suggested looking for the imperial woodpecker. I had an idea about doing a series of animal quests, and I had asked him what bird would be most exciting to search for—one rare, or even thought to be extinct. After thinking for a second or so, Victor snapped his fingers and said, “The imperial ivory-billed woodpecker!” Flinging his hands apart like an angler talking about a salmon, he went on to say that the bird was the largest of the woodpeckers, as large as a raven, and that the last verified reports of its existence had come out of the mountains of western Mexico in the early 1950s. But there had been scattered reports since. He would check into them, and if there was the slightest chance of finding the bird, he would arrange a small expedition for us.
Victor had already enjoyed the heady intoxication of observing a species thought by many to be extinct; he was one of the first to identify the Eskimo curlew when that bird—to the astonishment of ornithologists whose records showed a last sighting back in 1945—turned up in a plowed field on Galveston Island, Texas, in the spring of 1959. Victor told me that “it was like seeing a dinosaur.” The thought of going after the imperial woodpecker brought back that same feeling of excitement.
I first met Victor in 1972 when I joined his Christmas Bird Count in Freeport, Texas, which regularly either wins or comes in a close second in the nationwide contest for the record number of birds spotted over a 24-hour period. A poor and confused birder, I went along as a journalist. I was entranced not only by his patience—expert birders can be extremely aloof with amateurs—but by his enthusiasm. It is all-consuming. When he comes to New York for a visit, he arrives at our apartment with a pair of binoculars hanging from his neck; he is forever on the lookout. Presumably, in the city, there is always a chance of a peregrine falcon dropping from a window ledge onto a pigeon. He wears the binoculars around the apartment and scans the East River, which flows by our windows. He opens and burrows through the contents of his briefcase—bird books, tapes of birdcalls, checklists, feathers. He hands us one of the feathers. “Now, what sort of feather is this?” he asks. We look at it gravely, spinning it between thumb and forefinger, and then give up. He identifies it as being from a species of Mexican goatsucker. “Oh.” He puts a cassette of birdcalls on the tape machine; the room quivers with the sound turned up to full volume. Even the most hideous squawks light his face with pleasure. “Wow! [“Wow!” is a favorite exclamation.] Wow! Listen to that! That’s the call of the black-and-white owl. Mexican bird. Great!” Whoop, whoop, whoop. The owl sounds astonishingly like the alarm Klaxon of a naval destroyer moving through a crowded harbor. “Isn’t that great?”
My five-year-old daughter, Medora, loves him; he is one of the few adults she reminisces about. “He drinks tea and he talks and talks and talks.” When he leaves he is inclined to forget things—a sock, three or four feathers, glove, a bird book, a cassette discovered only when the machine is turned on a few weeks later to provide music for a cocktail party and suddenly the cry of the black-and-white owl rattles through the living room. My daughter comes running. “Victor’s here,” she calls out happily as she looks for him.
The thought of going into the mountains of Mexico after the imperial woodpecker produced a predictable effect on Victor: He began sending me letters outlining plans, and pamphlets describing the bird. Suffused with information, and in spite of myself, I began talking about the bird to people who probably were not interested. (“Hey, I’m setting off any day now to look for a huge woodpecker.”)
It was huge—almost two feet in height, the male with a red crest and the female with a great recurved black crest. Its habitat differed markedly from that of the American ivory-billed woodpecker, which, of course, prefers (or preferred, since it has not been authoritatively spotted since the late 1950s) the swampy forests of the southeastern United States. The imperial is a bird of the high pine country—upwards of 8,000 feet—of which the topographical maps showed great areas in western Mexico. But inevitably the literature forwarded by Victor indicated the paucity of the imperial’s numbers. Even as far back as the July 1898 issue of The Auk, E.W. Nelson wrote of a Mexican trip: “In company with two natives, my assistant and I rode over the undulating mountain summits for an entire day on a fruitless quest for these birds. Several species of pines, oaks, and madrones made up the forest, and beautiful little parklike basins open here and there forming ideal spots for the big woodpeckers, but we failed to see one.”
If the birds ever were relatively common in their habitat, they probably were killed off by guns—for food, since they were large enough to provide about as much sustenance as a squirrel, for their decorative feathers, and for more esoteric uses. For instance, the Tarahumara Indians of southern Sonora and Chihuahua matted the imperial’s feathers into earmuffs to prevent air from “getting inside” and causing “aches and pains of the head.”
Whatever had caused the species’ diminution, according to Victor’s notes, the bird had just about disappeared. In 1954 a dentist named W.L. Rheim found a pair of imperial woodpeckers 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Durango, but he was unable to photograph them. (This was the locale, incidentally, of much of John Huston’s great film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) On Rheim’s next trip into the area, in 1958, he met an Indian on the trail carrying a dead imperial he had shot; this was probably one of the pair Rheim had seen in 1954. That expired bird in the Indian’s hand is the last authoritative sighting, according to such woodpecker experts as James T. Tanner of the University of Tennessee and Lester Short of the American Museum of Natural History.
But Victor had heard some interesting rumors—the most intriguing one concerning a group of Mexican biology students who, in October 1973, purportedly had discovered several pairs of imperial woodpeckers in the mountains near the Barranca de Cobre (Copper Canyon), an enormous natural excavation about 40 miles from Chihuahua, which is considerably north of Durango. Victor checked out the story with Bernardo Villa, one of the leading naturalists in Mexico, who was not aware of any such sightings but suggested getting in touch with Starker Leopold, the great naturalist and author of The Wildlife of Mexico: The Game Birds and Mammals.
It turned out that Leopold had not heard of the Mexican biology students, but he had an interesting suggestion. He advised Victor to contact an old rancher named Tinker (the brother of the Tinker of Tinker to Evers to Chance baseball renown), who had lived in the mountains of western Mexico for years. The crusty, hermitlike, wandering figure had hiked alone with his mule trains into the imperial’s range and no doubt knew more about the bird’s habitat than anyone except the Indians. Leopold actually had seen a photograph of the imperial taken by Tinker. At present Tinker was living in Rialto, near Los Angeles.
Victor phoned him. At first Tinker was very friendly. “Yes, I know the imperial—the pitoreal, the Mexicans call him,” he said. “Many times I have seen them around the trout streams in the mountains.” Yes, he had taken a photograph of one and had given it to the Museum of Natural History at Santa Barbara. Moreover, he had killed one with a .410 shotgun, and the specimen was in the same museum.
When had Tinker last seen the imperial, Victor asked, barely able to contain his excitement.
Tinker replied he had seen one in the summer of 1975, when he was in the area on a pack trip.
I was not privy to the telephone conversation, but I would assume that at this point Emanuel produced an extremely loud “Wow!”
Would Tinker consider a small expedition to look for the bird? Why not? He was quite agreeable. He suggested itinerary: cross the border to Madera and from there take a pack trip by mule up the headwaters of the Yaqui River to a little community named Estrellita. Victor was surprised. On his maps the distances seemed vast, certainly by mule, and curiously he could not find the name Estrellita on any of his charts.
Then one day Tinker telephoned to announce that he would have to undergo surgery to remove a cataract from one of his eyes and would not be able to go. Victor expressed sympathy and disappointment; still, the rancher could be of great help. Where, for example, had he seen the pitoreal the summer before?
Well, Tinker wasn’t sure. He’d have to consult his notes.
Victor said he had not been able to find Estrellita on his maps.
“Well, it’s a vast country, Mr. Emanuel.”
“Where is the nearest mountain?” Victor asked.
“It’s all one vast mountain range, Mr. Emanuel,” Tinker said.
“We have a pilot.”
“Well, if he knows the country, he knows where the woodpecker is.”
At this point—with Tinker out of the picture—Victor decided the only sensible course was to fly over the general area in the state of Chihuahua that Tinker had described and look for the high pine habitat where one might expect to find the imperial woodpecker. He reconnoitered the country in a small plane piloted by a longtime bush pilot named Ike Russell—looking down on a vast, somewhat sere landscape of barranca and scrub country, until they came across a great ridge, heavily forested with pine, which ran like a spine 30 miles toward the airstrip at Tutuaca.
They landed here—the small settlement is the center of sawmill operations in the surrounding high country—and inquired about the bird. The people gathered. Much shaking of heads. The bird had been seen in the vicinity six years before. Nothing since. Nada, nada. Victor wrote me movingly of how the older people in the region seemed slightly shy and ill at ease when asked about the imperial—as if they knew that something distinctive had gone from their forests. Many of them said: “Había mucho” (“There were many”), and then they shook their heads. A group talking to Ike Russell spoke of the woodpecker as the “bird with the marble beak,” and then one of them said, “But he flees ... he is a flee-er.”
Victor was encouraged, however, by the terrain and the fact that no one had been in the area specifically to look for the bird. “That really surprises me,” he told me over the phone. “This great bird might be only 50 miles from the United States border, and yet so few have looked for it. I mean, it’s not as if the bird lived in Borneo.”
He began organizing our expedition in earnest. It was planned for June, during the nesting season, when the birds would remain in one area and could be observed. We would bring along a photographer and John Rowlett, an expert birdwatching friend with whom Victor was thinking of organizing birding tours on a professional basis. The two had studied birds together under Edgar Kincaid, a great naturalist and the editor of The Bird Life of Texas. Kincaid was fond of bestowing birds’ names on his favorite pupils, and had done so with Emanuel and Rowlett: Victor became the hooded warbler and John the peppershrike. Kincaid himself—a great mourner of human ecological follies—likes to answer to the name “the cassowary,” after the only bird that can kill and eviscerate a man, and on occasion does.
At the time of our expedition Rowlett was finishing his doctoral degree (on Wordsworth) at the University of Virginia. A good-humored, round-faced young man with a quick smile and great energy, he is equal to Emanuel in his knowledge of and enthusiasm for birds. I came to learn that his excitement at a particularly good sighting of a bird (to complement Victor’s “Wow!”) erupted in cries of “Yip! Yip! Yip!”—his face shining with pleasure.
I had first met Rowlett when he and Emanuel passed through New York in the winter of 1975 on a birding junket up the North Atlantic coast; their particular hope was to see both the snowy and saw-whet owls. Rowlett has a passion for owls—a fixation that started at a young age (according to Victor) because the letters o-w-1 are tucked away in his surname. We went out to Long Island to look for a saw-whet owl in the pine rows along the parkways just inland from Jones Beach. It was bitterly cold. When we reached the pines, I was asked to go in and shake some trees. The saw-whet owl often rests up against the bole of the tree, I was told, his shoulder against the bark; he is extremely hard to spot unless flushed out.
So I went into the grove and shook some of the smaller trees while the two waited outside to see if anything appeared. I worked hard at it, the soft pine needles and snow sifting down on my shoulders. No owls emerged. I was caught at my tree-shaking by a pair of strollers walking along the highway—an older couple, bundled up against the cold; they had a dog with them. I could see them, including the dog, peering into the small copse where I had just finished shaking one tree and with my hands held out in a strangler’s clutch was reaching for another. The impulse was to pull back, but it would have looked as if I had been caught doing something criminal. I went ahead and shook the tree. “Anything coming out?” I cried, hoping that John or Victor would answer from the far side of the pines, which would indicate some sort of reason for my odd behavior. There was no answer. They had moved out across the dunes. I did not dare glance out at the elderly couple.
The next time Emanuel and Rowlett came to New York—our expedition definitely scheduled—was to check out the bird skins of the imperial woodpecker at the American Museum of Natural History. The three of us were taken in hand by Lester Short, a slight, quite solemn man wearing a white smock, who is one of the great authorities on the woodpeckers of the world. We were outfitted with identification badges and led into the inner reaches of the building—to what I suspect must be called “the morgue”—where ceiling-high, pale-green filing cabinets house the museum’s enormous collection of bird skins. The ornithologist pulled out a metal tray and set it on a windowsill. The wan winter sunlight fell on the bird skins of a dozen or more of our native ivorybills, and three skins of the imperial, almost a third larger than the American bird.
A bird skin, whatever its size, is not the most prepossessing of objects; it looks rather like a cocoon, cotton showing at the bird's eyes, an identification tag attached to its claws – a moribund sight. But the reactions from Emanuel and Rowlett were predictable, at least to me, as if Dr. Short had unveiled the treasures of King Tutankhamen. I do not know what the ornithologist made of the chorus of “Yip! Yip! Yip!” “Wow! Wow! Wow!” and the triumphant stomping of feet. His eyes must have widened, at least slightly. He lifted out one of the birds. Victor and John posed for photographs with it between them, holding the woodpecker in profile so that the crest and the long bill showed. In the photographs their faces are ecstatic. The woodpecker, held with its bill tilted slightly upward, looks snooty and quite superior.
Three days after our inspection of the imperial skins in the museum, I received an anxious call from the secretary of the museum’s director. My wife and I had gone south for a week at the J. H. Whitney plantation in Thomasville, Georgia. A butler approached during tea and said there was a call from New York. “We have just the slightest problem,” the secretary said to me over the phone. “We are missing one of the imperial woodpecker bird skins.”
“You don’t suppose it might have been borrowed?” she asked.
“Borrowed?” I was aghast.
“We thought you might know,” she was saying.
“Are you sure? Perhaps the museum should count the woodpeckers again. Maybe one of them fell down behind ... er ... a bookcase,” I suggested lamely.
I paced around when she hung up. I speculated what The New York Times would do with such a story: The Case of the Kidnapped Woodpecker.
I called up Victor in Houston. His voice was full of excitement about his research on the imperial. Moreover, he had some new bird tapes he wanted to play for me over the phone.
“Victor,” I interrupted him. “They seem to be missing a bird skin from the museum. An imperial.”
There was a pause at the other end. “Well, that’s odd,” Victor said.
“They seem to think we’re responsible,” I said, “that one of us might have ‘borrowed’ it.”
“I can't imagine,” Victor said. “I’m thinking back. You left for lunch. We stayed for a while with the imperials, and then we examined the skin of a harpy eagle. Marvelous bird! Marvelous bird! Terrific claws. Huge! Very easy to see how they can carry off a monkey.”
“Victor,” I interrupted again.
“Oh, yes, the bird skin. No, I can't imagine,” he said. I almost caught myself saying, “Well, could you look around just in case,” as if the bird skin of the imperial woodpecker were something that might drop out of the lining of an overcoat, like a set of car keys.
“Are you calling from New York?” Victor was saying.
“I’m in Thomasville, Georgia.”
“Thomasville! You must look for the red-cockaded woodpecker,” Victor exclaimed. “Oh, yes. Right there. Great bird. Rare and very specialized … can nest only on a tree suffering from red heart disease ... you must rush out and look for him.”
That evening I kept recalling a friend from my undergraduate days at Cambridge University who had “borrowed'” a Giacometti statuette from a London museum, sweeping it off a pedestal and tucking it into his clothes. He had it in his rooms at college for a week or so, staring at it, touching it, and then after a time, his thirst for the object “having been slaked,” as he put it, he somehow got the work back into the museum. He rationalized to those of us who knew he had it: “I love it; no one feels as strongly as I do about it.” We were thrilled and aghast, perhaps as much for the intensity of his feelings as for being accessories after the fact.
The next morning the museum secretary was on the phone. She was almost hopelessly contrite. How could such a confusion have arisen?
It wasn’t actually a woodpecker that was missing, she told me, it was a paper on the bird, a treatise. On checking they realized they had given it to the two young birdwatchers without making a copy; somehow the whole thing had become garbled, and it was thought the woodpecker itself was missing. She hoped no one had thought the museum or Dr. Short was accusing anybody.
I tried to calm her by telling her that the enthusiasm of my two friends was such that it would not have surprised me in the least if they had taken not only a bird but a whole tray of them, and the harpy eagle, and Dr. Short as well.
Victor was relieved when he heard the news. “I’m glad they’ve accounted for their bird skins,” he said. “They must be happy. But think of us. We're going to be looking for the real thing!” His voice was exultant.
Two of us (Terry Moore, a Tucson-based photographer, and I) flew to the state of Chihuahua to meet Victor and John at Tutuaca. The plane, a Cessna 180 adapted to set down in small corners, was owned and flown by Ike Russell, a tall, laconic sort in his sixties, who had flown Victor on the reconnaissance trip. We flew two and a half hours south of the border across increasingly rough country and set down, the wheels seeming to sift through the tops of the pines, onto the small dirt airstrip, banking in like a waterfowl setting its wings to drop onto a pond.
Victor and John were waiting, binoculars dangling from their necks. They had set up camp in a tin shed on a slope above the airstrip, which looked down on Tutuaca, its few houses spread across a valley surrounded by great buttelike, heavily pined hills. The first birds I saw in Tutuaca gave the impression we were in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: robins, barn swallows, shrikes, a red-tailed hawk, meadowlarks, nighthawks beginning to whirl overhead in the evening. Victor, to my relief, was able to point out a Cassin’s kingbird and a raven coming over a ridge. One gives the raven an extra look because the great pitoreal is the same size.
Not much to Tutuaca itself. The population was once 400 but has dwindled to 100. The big topic is obviously the gringos looking for the pitoreal, and some of the locals have congregated around our shed, lounging near the door and occasionally leaning in and solemnly looking at us. They are fancied-up in their dress: print shirts, worn outside their belts, and tight, often crease-pressed trousers. Many are going to a fiesta at a sawmill up in the hills. The pastime among the men when they tire of staring at the visitors is to spar sometimes as many as four or five pairs squared off against each other, shadowboxing up and down the road. The girls in bright pants stand together in couples, looking on with arms looped around each other’s waists. Trucks with girls standing in the back go by on the way up to the sawmill. The girls wave, and the driver blows the horn. Blowing horns, especially in the big diesel trucks that carry the lumber down from the sawmills, is another local custom in Tutuaca; the blast moves in and out of the surrounding hills, picking up lovely overtones and subtleties.
We have been receiving reports about the imperial woodpecker. Victor is encouraged. My own suspicion was that once the word got around the area about the four Americans looking for the pitoreal, a lot of hasty planning would go on around the kitchen tables and we would be deluged with reports and offers (for a sum of money) to lead us directly to a place which was stiff with pitoreals (“My sister knows secret place, not far at all”), but to date there had been none of this. Victor is especially pleased by the accuracy of the dimensions of the birds described. Americans have a tendency to exaggerate and thrust their hands apart. Mexicans, Victor thinks, are more accurate; they hold chickens, they know the size of things.
There have been two especially interesting reports—one from a boy reporting that his mother, a Señora Salvador, only a month before, had seen a pitoreal while walking on a ridge above a settlement to the north called Yahuirachic. She was with two of her children at the time. The other sighting was described by Antonio Marquez, the superintendent of sawmill operations around Tutuaca. He told us that the year before he had seen two pitoreals in the top of dead pines on a ridge above a ranch called Cebadilla. He suspected they were a pair—a matrimonio. Before that it had been six years since he had last seen an imperial woodpecker. He took a comb out of his shirt pocket and whisked it through his hair. This last time he had watched the two pitoreals for a half-hour. They were working for insects in dead trees, but he never saw them alight on the same tree together. He seemed convincing. Victor wanted to know what their cry sounded like. Antonio looked around made a few tentative sounds in his throat; his eyes glazed, and then he cried: Oowhaa! Oowhaa! He seemed surprised at the sound that had erupted from him, and somewhat embarrassed. Victor looked skeptical. He asked about the bird's flight. Antonio flopped his arms without any distinctive rhythm, but he said he had not seen the birds fly far. Just to a nearby tree. He had got within 50 meters of them.
Victor’s Spanish is sufficient to get through discussions of this sort. From time to time he turns and translates to keep the rest of us abreast of developments. “Antonio says that the woodcutters in the village of Pitoreal—about 50 miles across the mountains—have seen six imperial woodpeckers in recent months."
“Six pitoreals in Pitoreal!” John exclaims.
Antonio is a pleasant-faced man. We cannot imagine he has any reason to be devious except to try to brighten our countenances. Of course, any word of the Great Bird does that with alarming swiftness—a quick flush of enthusiasm, a “Yip! Yip!” from John, a “Wow!” or two from Victor, and I have cultivated a small brandish of the fist to indicate that I am not immune to the excitement of the search. But I have noticed that Antonio wears a curious belt buckle—a quartered design with an ace of spades, a hypodermic needle, a pair of dice, and cigarettes in the squares—which one hopes does not represent his particular set of values. We will be traveling in his truck, which is 20 years old, cantankerous with a leaky radiator.
Just as we are about to depart, Antonio comes to tell us that he can’t go. Obviously crestfallen, he explains that word has just come in that personnel trouble at one of the sawmills requires his presence. He is sending his cousins Gilberta and Saul in his stead.
We set off for the mountains to the north in Antonio’s truck, painted a bright red, white, and blue to disguise its age. A cloth stopper flaps out of the gas pipe. The road is excellent so far—the pines enormous along the roadside, Douglas fir among them as we climb. The loveliest and strangest of the trees is an occasional madrone, a Japanese-looking tree with a rust-red redskin shade of bark; indeed, in Texas the tree is called “the naked Indian.”
John and Victor stand in the back of the truck and call out the names of the birds—however common—as we pass. One of the pleasures (if somewhat exhausting) of birding with Victor and John is that they level the shotgun blasts of their enthusiasm at whatever bird we spot. They have inherited this e