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 excellent practice from Edgar Kincaid, who feels that the true bird lover must take an abiding interest in every species; he himself has no difficulty studying a meadowlark hour on hour simply for the pleasures of observation. The only aspect of birdlife that Kincaid deplores is the “introduced bird” (red-whiskered bulbul, blue-gray tanager, monk parakeet, et al.). He gives those “damned exotics” no more than a passing glance. But I am not sure that either John or Victor would draw that tough a line. It would be easy to imagine them crouching in a henhouse and observing a Rhode Island Red if there were nothing else around. As we climb into the mountains John calls out, “Junco! Junco!”—perhaps the most common bird along the road. This morning, during a halt to fill our leaking radiator with water from a roadside stream, he spent a number of minutes admiring the junco’s yellow eye.
Of course, such enthusiasm seems to be a universal phenomenon among those who enjoy birding. During a tea break along the road, Victor described what a friend of his had remembered of the great crowds that had turned up at Newburyport, Massachusetts, to try to spot Ross’ gull (a single bird had been seen on the beaches, the first sighting of the species in the lower United States). A crowd of over a thousand, all of them outfitted with binoculars—a thousand pairs of binoculars, literally a wall of lenses—unsuccessfully scanned the beaches. Then someone reported that the bird had been spotted on the other side of the bay. A tremendous rush for cars. A long honking procession started around the perimeter of the bay, and once there, the watchers abandoned their cars and began to rush across a tidal flat to get into position, a lemminglike, blind stampede, with some of them moving in great gazellelike leaps, their binoculars flying, and others miscalculating and pitching forward into the mud and having to haul themselves or each other out of the ooze. But they kept pressing forward, so that in their wild-eyed determination to move toward waters of the bay it seemed as if the crowds were hastening from some awful creature behind them.
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.
Rowlett is considered by fellow birdwatchers to be one of the best of the callers and squeakers. Yesterday, while he was squeaking in a roadside pine grove, a Cooper's hawk came in at him, wings stooped, and banked away at the very last instant, just a few feet from his face – a great flare of wings as the hawk turned. John can vary his squeak, and what had brought in the hawk was the sound of a bird in distress. Over the years he has squeaked in foxes, a lot of barred owls, which are especially responsive, and on February 11, 1973, in Starr County, Texas, he squeaked up a rufous-capped warbler, a new species to the United States, though the birds are fairly common breeders only 50 miles south over the Mexican border. He has squeaked up a wild pony (which he did on the island of Assateague off the Virginia coast), and there are admirers who insist that he squeaked up a pod of whales on a pelagic birding trip off Maryland.
We are also using Victor’s tape recorder to bring in birds—using a cassette tape on which an ornithologist named Fletcher Sillick introduces each birdcall. The call of the coppery-tailed trogon has been particularly effective, bringing in those spectacular birds, which seem to close their wings in midflight as they come down off the ridges to inspect us with great flickerlike swoops through the pines—such an arresting sight that in our excitement the tape often runs on to Sillick introducing the next birdcall. His voice booms out into the pines, quite prissy and every syllable pronounced with care, as if he were introducing a bird waiting backstage to an auditorium audience: “The pygmy owl!”
Victor was reminded of a birding group on Point Pelee, Lake Erie, which hoped to see the king rail, a bird known for being furtive and prone to crouching in the reeds and letting everyone pass by. The group hoped to flush it out with the same sort of cassette tape we had—each birdcall announced not only with the name of the bird but also with the appropriate page number in the bird guide so that the birder could refer to the text. The recorder was turned on near a promising patch of reeds, but the tape was not advanced quite far enough, so that the voice of the announcer crackled out sharply: “The king rail, page 58,” upon which, as if prompted by a master of ceremonies, the bird dashed out in full view before the tape ever reached its call!
Apparently, a certain amount of controversy exists over the use of tape recorders, one opinion being that the birds may desert their territory on hearing the voices of their kind. Nevertheless, the tapes are so effective in calling out secretive birds that they are widely used. Indeed, the practice is so universal that inevitably a birdwatcher successfully calling in a bird with his cassette, the answering call getting closer and closer, suddenly hears from the other side of a bush, “The barred owl, page 98,” and realizes that he’s called up another tape recorder. Very little can match the shamefacedness of two birdwatchers carrying cassette recorders coming into view of each other from around a bush.
Of course, we have no recording of the imperial woodpecker’s call, but we do have the American ivorybill’s, which some observers think is similar. Sometimes we play it from the machine, but it is weak and scratchy. We rely more on John’s imitation. He tries at every dawn to call up the imperial. Standing on a boulder, with his hands cupped to his mouth, he calls down into the canyons a mournful, quite nasal honk—four or five of these in succession—and then he listens. But we have not heard anything in reply but the faint echoes. He is indomitable about it, poised on the boulder for a half-hour at a time. His only pair of shorts has worn away in the rear. Through two half-moon rips his buttocks shine, more so every day, which somehow symbolizes the tentative nature of our mission—his clothes disintegrating as he honks his forlorn cries to a long-lost bird.
The night was restless. Victor and John worried about bears. What turned out to be a branch thumped loudly against their tent during the night; inside, the boom was like being in a kettledrum. Neither of them felt like prowling around the camp to see what had caused it.
A chilly north wind this morning soughing through the pines, but there is interesting news. Saul hiked down to Pescados during the night where he heard of a boy who had seen the imperial just eight days before. He had seen it by a hole in a high dead pine on the other side of town.
While everyone crowded around Victor and Saul to hear this report, a flight of thick-billed parrots came over the ridge behind us, calling loudly to each other and Victor cried out “Guacas! Guacas!” (Guacamayo in Spanish means macaw, and guaca is the local name in Mexico for the related thick-billed parrot.) The thick-billed parrot was a lifer for John Rowlett. He gazed up into the sky with the beatific expression of a man who has seen a vision. “Yip! Yip! Yip!” he shouted. “Look at those long tails!” We watched the flight, very high, the parrots twisting as if they were being tossed in a funnel of wind; they were seemingly looking for an opening to drop into the forest canopy, but they were over the ridge before they could decide. John and Victor shook hands. “Guacas!” John was having a hard time winding down. Calm would descend, but then his whole body would jump, as if jerked by a puppeteer’s strings; his arms would stretch aloft, his face shining with excitement, and he would wheel about in his own dervish whirl.
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.
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.
We have drawn up a Richter scale of excitement regarding evidence of the imperial, what we would prefer to see if the imperial ever puts in an appearance. In descending order of preference it runs as follows:
- Bird on nest, feeding young.
- Bird on nest, not feeding young.
- Bird “working” tree (close).
- Bird “working” tree (across canyon).
- Bird seen in flight.
- Bird glimpsed in flight.
- Fresh “workings.”
- Not-so-fresh “workings.”
- Old hole.
- Rowlett’s imitation of the imperial’s call.
- Picture in Peterson’s Field Guide to Mexican Birds
On this scale we thought for a time we had reached not-so-fresh “workings.” We had found large sections of pine bark inundated with small holes, many of them lying on the ground, which either had been pried away, or had fallen loose from natural causes, from the bole of the pine above. There has been considerable excitement about this—we exclaim over sections of pine bark like Venetian merchants over their silks—but we are beginning to realize that the “workings” are almost everywhere we look. Some sort of borer insect is probably responsible, because if the woodpeckers were, the woods would be alive with them. We would have to dodge them.
But the slabs of bark provide an outlet, a hope. The drivers are getting impatient, especially when we pound on the roof from the back of the truck, shouting at them to pull up so we can rush out and pick up slabs of bark. They grumble and want to get back to Tutuaca. Victor reminds them of their contractual obligation. He opens up the Peterson guidebook and shows them the picture of the imperial to refresh their minds. “Besides,” he offers as a clincher, “if you see the bird, you’ll be able to put it on your life list!”
We are in Yahuirachic, a frontierlike settlement strung out through the pines—a few corrals, a general store where we bought some warm orange soda and sipped it in the sun. The word is out for Señora Salvador, who reportedly had seen the bird a month before up on a ridge. A couple dozen children wait with us. Two or three of them have lassos coiling them and twirling them toward the ends of the pine branches. We see Señora Salvador being escorted toward us. We rise, and our contingent, including the children, goes out to meet her. The two groups come together atop a refuse area; old shoes are everywhere underfoot—discarded sandals, heels with nails in them. Señora Salvador, a woman with missing front teeth and bright red gums, looks slightly startled; when the questioning starts she begins to look embarrassed. Oh, no, she finally says, she has not seen the pitoreal for 14 years! Her boy meant no harm; he just wanted us to come and visit Yahuirachic.
We shift our feet uncomfortably amid the old shoes. Victor is especially upset. He asks the others standing with her what they know of the pitoreal. They shake their heads. Eight years ago, they say. Victor wanders off alone. The children perch on a corral fence, swinging their legs. Suddenly we hear Victor shout “Guacas! Guacas!” Two parrots appear high above the end of the valley in their distinctive tumbled flight—as if sent to assuage Victor’s despair at the news from Señora Salvador. His body tenses with excitement, and he brings up his binoculars. Along the fence the children giggle at the men looking up into the sky.
At supper John Rowlett talks about birds dying in the air from natural causes. He has never seen it himself, but