Evidence for an Extinct Woodpecker


(This 1079th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 27, 2011.)


One of the thrills of backyard bird feeding is the appearance at your suet feeder of a crow-sized woodpecker with a flaming red crest: a real life version of the cartoon Woody Woodpecker.


This visitor is a pileated woodpecker, that surname pronounced like pile or pill depending on your personal preference. You more often see their work on woodland hikes: inch wide cavities torn out of tree boles or even tree stumps literally torn apart, in both cases the result of their search for the beetles that are doing the real violence to the trees' periderm.


Away from feeders you seldom see these shy birds and when you do it is usually in the distance flying off, but you can identify them from the similar appearing all-black crows by their white underwings. More often you hear their flicker-like but louder and more irregular calls, which the current Peterson guide describes as "kik-kik-kikkik-kik-kik, etc."


Years ago I came across a pair of these handsome birds feeding on poison ivy berries. That came as a surprise but I now find that in fall their diet is almost half derived from plants with grapes, Virginia creepers and dogwoods among them.


A relative of the pileated woodpecker, a similar appearing but larger species, made headlines after a brief film of a bird identified as an ivory-billed woodpecker was taken by Gene Sparling on April 25, 2004 in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge of eastern Arkansas. Then a few visitors to the area claimed to have seen additional individuals.


This was indeed big news for the species had been declared extirpated from the North American mainland, the last previous observation having been in 1944. (Travel restrictions prevented ornithologists from searching for the few birds that possibly remained of a relict population in Cuba.)


Not to be outdone, a five-member team of ornithologists from Auburn University and the University of Windsor observed what they thought was an ivory-billed woodpecker in mature swamp forest along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida on May 21, 2005.


Many birders remain unconvinced that these records are acceptable. I have seen the five-second film and, although I could not identify the bird, I leave it to far better ornithologists to do so. I have not followed up on the original furor, but I have seen no further evidence of ivory-bills despite well-organized and widespread searches that incorporated high-quality recording technology.


If nothing else, however, the episode has led to heightened federal conservation efforts in the regions where these observations took place.


Imperial Woodpeckers by Evaristo Hernandez-Fernandez

Cover Painting for the October 2011 issue of The Auk


And now we have another related episode. The ivory-bill is (or was) a large version of the pileated woodpecker, but today we have a still larger species in the news. The likely extirpated imperial woodpecker of Mexico, described by Tim Gallagher of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology as "the mightiest woodpecker that ever lived," was never known to have been photographed. All the evidence that remained of the species was museum bird skins.


To gain some sense of the size of this mighty bird, consider some measurements: the pileated woodpecker is about 17 inches long, the imperial 23 inches long. That means that the imperial woodpecker would weigh over twice as much as the pileated. It is indeed a big bird since the pileated woodpecker is already crow-sized.


But Martjan Lammertink came across some correspondence that identified a Pennsylvania dentist, William Rhein, who had photographed a female imperial woodpecker in 1956. Lammertink and Gallagher contacted Rhein and obtained the film. Although it is of poor quality, it clearly identifies the bird. (You can watch the two-minute episode on YouTube.)


Excited by their finding, Lammertink and Gallagher traveled to the Sierra Madre in Durango, where Rhein's film was taken, to look for the species. Unfortunately, the area near the village of Guacamayita, is largely controlled by the Los Zetas drug cartel and at the time of their expedition conditions had deteriorated with a wave of violence and crime including kidnappings. Despite this the team spent two weeks looking for the birds. With no luck. They even found that local foresters had been poisoning them, believing that they were destroying valuable lumber.


Absent these other remarkable birds, we should remain happy with our pileated woodpeckers.-- Gerry Rising