Imperial woodpecker

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Imperial woodpecker
Kaiserspecht fg02.jpg
Male and female specimens
Conservation status

Critically endangered, possibly extinct (IUCN 3.1)[1]
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Piciformes
Family: Picidae
Genus: Campephilus
Species: C. imperialis
Binomial name
Campephilus imperialis
(Gould, 1832)

The imperial woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis) is – or was – a member of the woodpecker family, Picidae. If it is not extinct, it is the world's largest woodpecker species, at 56–60 cm (22–24 in) long.[2] Owing to its close taxonomic relationship, and similarity in appearance, to the ivory-billed woodpecker, it is sometimes called the "Mexican Ivorybill," but this name is also used for the pale-billed woodpecker. The large and conspicuous bird has long been known to the native inhabitants of Mexico and was called cuauhtotomomi in Nahuatl, uagam by the Tepehuán, and cumecócari by the Tarahumara.

Description and ecology[edit]

Adult male (front) and female (back)
Female specimen at Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; note hand for size comparison

The male imperial woodpecker had a red-sided crest, but was otherwise black, apart from the inner primaries, which were white-tipped, the white secondaries, and a white scapular stripe which, unlike in the ivory-billed woodpecker, did not extend onto the neck. The female was similar, but her crest was all black and (unlike the female Ivorybill's) recurved at the top. The bird was once widespread and, until the early 1950s, not uncommon throughout the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico, from western Sonora and Chihuahua southwards to Jalisco and Michoacán.

The imperial woodpecker preferred open montane forests made up of Durango, Mexican White, Loblolly and Montezuma Pines, and oak, usually between 2100 and 2700 meters ASL. It fed mainly by scaling bark from dead pine trees and feeding on the insect larvae found underneath. A mated pair required a very large area of untouched mature forest to survive, approximately 26 km2 (10 sq mi); outside the breeding season, the birds were reported to form small groups of a handful to a dozen individuals and moved about a wider area, apparently in response to availability of food.[3]

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has released a film of the woodpecker, recorded in Mexico in 1956.[4]

Decline and probable extinction[edit]

The imperial woodpecker is officially listed as "Critically Endangered (possibly extinct)" by the IUCN and BirdLife International. The last confirmed report, however, was of one female in Durango in 1956, and the species is very likely now extinct. The primary reason for its decline was loss of habitat, although researchers believe that decline was also accelerated by active eradication campaigns conducted by logging interests, and by over-hunting — for use in folk medicine, and because nestlings were considered a delicacy, at least by the Tarahumara. On top of those factors, imperial woodpeckers were, simply, stunning birds, and as the species became rare many were apparently shot by people who had never encountered such a bird, and wanted to get a closer look.[3][5]

Given the near total destruction of its original habitat, and the lack of any confirmed sightings in over 50 years, most ornithologists believe the imperial woodpecker is likely extinct. There are a handful of more recent, unconfirmed sightings,[6] the most recent of which closely followed the 2005 publication of the purported rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Lammertink et al. (1996), after extensively reviewing post-1956 reports, conclude that the species did indeed survive into the 1990s in the central part of its range, but also consider a continued survival very unlikely. According to them, the population was always restricted in historic times, although the species was indeed present in maximum density before a catastrophic decline during the 1950s. The lack of good records from that time is apparently based more on lack of research than on actual rarity, but this seems to have changed radically only one decade later.[3]

Recent field research by Tim Gallagher and Martjan Lammertink has found evidence — in the form of accounts by elderly residents in the bird's range, who saw imperial woodpeckers when the witnesses were much younger, and who discussed their recollections with the researchers — that foresters working with Mexican logging companies in the 1950s told the local people that the woodpeckers were destroying valuable timber, and encouraged the people to kill the birds. As part of this campaign, the foresters gave the local residents poison to smear on trees that the birds foraged on. Because groups of imperial woodpeckers would tend to feed on a single huge, dead, old-growth pine tree for as long as two weeks, applying poison to such a tree would be a devastatingly effective way to wipe out a group of up to a dozen of these huge woodpeckers — and, perhaps, even to kill off succeeding groups of the birds that might move in to the area, and be attracted to the same tree. Gallagher suspects that such a campaign of poisoning may be the key to the species' apparent catastrophic population crash in the 1950s, which has hitherto lacked a satisfactory explanation. Habitat loss and an increase in subsistence hunting might have depressed populations of the woodpecker, but should not have caused them to virtually drop out of sight in a single decade. A campaign of poisoning, on the other hand, could well have killed whole groups of the bird in a short time.[7]

The great irony, and tragedy, of the apparent role of this poisoning campaign in the demise of the imperial woodpecker is that its premise, the protection of valuable timber from the woodpeckers, was utterly baseless. Imperial woodpeckers did not forage on, or excavate nest holes or roosting holes in, live, healthy trees. They depended on standing, but dying or dead, timber for these purposes. If foraging birds were tearing into a tree, then it was already infested with the beetle grubs that were their principal food source. Therefore, the elimination of the imperial woodpecker did nothing to protect the live, sound timber that logging interests valued so highly.[8] Indeed, the application of simple reasoning ought to have informed the foresters who pushed the poisoning campaign that the birds posed no threat to lucrative timber resources. Logging interests were attracted to the high-altitude, old-growth pine-oak montane forests and savannas that were the woodpecker's habitat in the central Mexican highlands precisely because of the great wealth of timber in the giant trees of those forests. With a moment's thought, it should have been obvious that this tremendously rich timber resource had co-existed with a thriving imperial woodpecker population for thousands of years. The birds were clearly no threat to the trees. In this light the (likely) extinction of the imperial woodpecker recalls the characterization of the American ornithologist W.E. Clyde Todd, writing of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, that “[t]he story of its passing is a shameful record of human cruelty, avarice and indifference.”[9]

The imperial woodpecker is known from about 160 museum specimens and a single amateur film from 1956 depicting one bird climbing, foraging and flying. The film has been restored and released by Cornell University.[10]

See also[edit]

Ivory-billed woodpecker


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2013). "Campephilus imperialis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ "Imperial Woodpecker Campephilus imperialis". BirdLife International. 
  3. ^ a b c Lammertink, M.; Rojas-Tomé, J.A.; Casillas-Orona, F.M. & Otto, R.L. (1996). "Status and conservation of old-growth forests and endemic birds in the pine-oak zone of the Sierra Madre Occidental, Mexico". Verslagen en Technische Gegevens Instituut voor Systematiek en Populatiebiologie (Zoologisch Museum) 69: 1–89. 
  4. ^ Leslie Kaufman (October 28, 2011). "A Riveting Glimpse of a Vanished Bird". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ Tim Gallagher (2013): Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre, pp. 224-26. New York: Atria Books. ISBN 978-1-4391-9152-1.
  6. ^ Mendenhall, Matt (2005). "Old Friend Missing". Birder's World 2005 (6): 35–39. 
  7. ^ Gallagher: Imperial Dreams, pp. 224-26.
  8. ^ Gallagher: Imperial Dreams, pp. 46, 54, 95, 139, 151, 225, 232.
  9. ^ W.E. Clyde Todd (1940): Birds of Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  10. ^ Lammertink, Martjan; Gallagher, Tim W., Rosenberg, Kenneth V., Fitzpatrick, John W., Liner, Eric; Rojas-Tomé, Jorge & Escalante, Patricia (2011). "Film Documentation of the Probably Extinct Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis)". Auk 128 (4): 671–677. doi:10.1525/auk.2011.10271. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Casillas-Orona, Federico Moctezuma (2005): The Imperial Woodpecker, Campephilus imperialis (Gould, 1832). Short paper published online; June, 2005. PDF fulltext
  • Dalton, Rex (2005): Ornithology: A wing and a prayer. Nature 437(8 September 2005): 188–190. Summary
  • Gallagher, Tim (2013): Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre. New York: Atria Books. ISBN 978-1-4391-9152-1.
  • Tanner, James T. (1964): The Decline and Present Status of the Imperial Woodpecker of Mexico. Auk 81(1): 74–81. PDF fulltext

External links[edit]