Tale from a Mexican Treetop

By Tim Gallagher
Imperial Woodpecker by John Livzey Ridgway
Imperial Woodpecker by John Livzey Ridgway.

Living Bird editor Tim Gallagher took a short break from the AOU meeting last week to visit the San Diego Natural History Museum. He’s trying to piece together what happened to the majestic Imperial Woodpecker, a bird of Mexico’s high pine forests that has not been seen since 1956.

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The museum had two specimens of this immense, raven-sized woodpecker. As Tim checked the specimens’ foot tags he realized something even more thrilling than the birds themselves: One specimen held details relevant to one of the last known sightings of the species—an amazing first-hand story Tim had uncovered on a recent trip to Mexico. –Hugh Powell

One of the Imperial Woodpecker specimens instantly caught my attention. Specimen number 29855 was collected by W. M. Fuelscher at Catalasia Peak, in the high country not far from the remote mountain community of Chuhuichupa in Chihuahua, Mexico. It had been added to the collection in 1949—very late for an Imperial Woodpecker specimen, most of which were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I thought immediately about an old man I interviewed last year in the Sierra Madre who as a child had actually seen the Imperial Woodpecker. He said a “gringo” had approached his father in 1948, asking him if he could show him some Imperial Woodpeckers. His father told him that he knew where some of these birds lived in the high country above Chuhuichupa. The man and his son (who was eight years old at the time) took the American on a several-hours-long ride into the high country to reach the place where he had seen the woodpeckers. Tragically, they found a dead Imperial Woodpecker lying at the base of its nest tree—a huge pine snag with a cavity on the trunk, high above them.

Curious what might be inside the cavity, the man tied two lariats together and threw the end of the rope over a limb above the nest hole. He then fashioned a sling for his son, tied the other end to his saddle horn, and backed up the horse, hoisting his eight-year-old son 50 or 60 feet in the air. The boy pulled two partially feathered young from the nest. They were already dead though still warm to the touch, he told me. Perhaps both parents had been killed, and the young woodpeckers starved.

What the young boy (who is now 70 years old) remembered most about this experience was the American man’s response when he saw the dead nestlings. He broke down and wept, saying that the birds would become extinct and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.

Now, what I’d like to know is whether specimen 29855 at the San Diego Natural History Museum is the same adult Imperial Woodpecker that the two men and the boy found in 1948 and whether the mystery gringo is W. M. Fuelscher. The bird was collected in the same general area at the same general time. And according to the museum’s curator of birds, Phil Unitt, this was the only specimen the collection ever obtained from Fuelscher.

I love a mystery, and perhaps someday I’ll find the answer.

The Imperial Woodpecker painting above is from an 1898 scientific paper in The Auk. A  link to a PDF including a scan of the original plate is here. Public domain image via Wikipedia.

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