Insights on probable extinction of ivory-bill's closest relative
The footage, which captures the last confirmed sighting of an Imperial Woodpecker in the wild, has now been restored and used to describe the species' behavior and its habitat—determined by tracking down the exact filming location during a 2010 expedition. The research appears in the October 2011 issue of The Auk, the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists'
“It is stunning to look back through time with this film and see the magnificent Imperial Woodpecker moving through its old-growth forest environment, and it is heartbreaking to know that both the bird and the forest are gone,” said Martjan Lammertink, lead author of the paper along with four Cornell Lab staff and two Mexican biologists.
In the 85-second color film, which is available for viewing at www.birds.cornell.edu/imperialfilm, a female Imperial Woodpecker hitches up and forages on the trunks of large
The film was shot by William L. Rhein, a dentist and amateur ornithologist from
In March 2010, Lammertink and Tim Gallagher of the Cornell Lab launched an expedition to find the site where Rhein made his film. With the assistance of Oscar Paz and Manuel Escarcega of the conservation group Pronatura Noroeste, the two interviewed local residents about the Imperial Woodpecker and explored a few remaining old-growth forests in areas inaccessible to logging. The fieldwork was by funded the Neotropical Birds initiative of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The British Birdwatching Fair - Founding Global Sponsor of the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme.
The expedition turned up no evidence that Imperial Woodpeckers are still alive. Only residents in their late 60s or older remembered the Imperial Woodpecker, and no one reported seeing any of the birds after the 1950s. “Even in the rare remnants of uncut forest, we found evidence of hunting and saw old-growth forests being cut and burned and planted with marijuana and opium poppies,” said Gallagher.
The entire range of the Imperial Woodpecker lay in the high country of the Sierra Madre Occidental—a rugged mountain range stretching some 900 miles south from the U.S.-Mexico border—and the Transvolcanic mountains of central Mexico. The species largely vanished in the late 1940s and 1950s as logging destroyed their old-growth pine forest habitat. Imperial Woodpeckers were also frequently shot for food, to use in folk remedies, or out of curiosity.
One interviewee reported that logging interests in the 1950s actively encouraged the extermination of these birds, saying that they were destructive to valuable timber, and actually supplied poison to smear on the birds' foraging trees. Similar poisoning campaigns had been waged against the Mexican wolves and grizzly bears in these mountains, and both of these subspecies are now gone.
The Imperial Woodpecker was the closest relative of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which suffered a similar decline from habitat loss in the southeastern
At www.birds.cornell.edu/imperialfilm, visitors can view the original Rhein film (plus a motion-stabilized version), the Auk article, a feature article in the Lab's Living Bird magazine, slide shows of the 1956 and 2010 expeditions, and hear commentary from the film maker William L. Rhein.
The article in the Auk—"Film documentation of the probably extinct Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis)"—by Martjan Lammertink, Tim Gallagher, Ken Rosenberg, John Fitzpatrick, and Eric Liner of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Jorge Rojas-Tomé of Organización Vida Silvestre and Patricia Escalante of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)—analyzes the film and provides details about the 1950s expeditions of William L. Rhein and the 2010 Cornell Lab follow-up expedition.
Our core group consisted of Martjan, me, and two young field assistants, Oscar Paz and Manuel Escarcega, from the Mexican conservation group, Pronatura Noroeste, which also supplied the four-wheel-drive pickup truck we would be driving. On the first day we drove in a three-vehicle caravan—the men from the Sierra Madre we had met the day before in front; Oscar, Manuel, and me in the second truck; and Martjan and Julian Bautista last in a forestry truck. We were barely halfway to our destination when we had our first unpleasant encounter. Some armed men sped past in a pickup truck but then drove side-by-side with our lead truck for several minutes before racing away in a cloud of dust. I don’t know what the men said to him, but the man driving the lead vehicle was badly shaken. Someone in a nearby village had been murdered a few days earlier by gunmen who fit the general description of these men.