Skip to content

New Footage of Imperial Woodpecker [Distribution]

October 26, 2011

Imperial Woodpecker in Flight

New Study Analyzes Only Known Footage of Vanished Imperial Woodpecker
Insights on probable extinction of ivory-bill’s closest relative

For release: October 26, 2011

ITHACA, N.Y.—The largest woodpecker that ever lived probably went extinct in the late 20th century in the high mountains of Mexico, without anyone ever capturing photos or film of the two-foot-tall, flamboyantly crested bird. Or so scientists thought—until a biologist from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tracked down a 16-mm film shot in 1956 by a dentist from Pennsylvania.

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’ Union, and the cover features a painting of the woodpecker adapted from the film.  (You can link to the Auk article here.)

“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, a female Imperial Woodpecker hitches up and forages on the trunks of large Durango pines. The bird’s extraordinary crest of black feathers curves up over her head, shaking as she hitches up the tree and chips at bark with her long, pale bill. As she launches into flight, the bird shows a long pointed tail, long wings, and a powerful, fast flight.

The film was shot by William L. Rhein, a dentist and amateur ornithologist from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who went to Mexico in 1953, 1954, and 1956 specifically to film and record the sounds of the Imperial Woodpecker. He finally succeeded in filming the bird in 1956, shooting the footage hand-held from the back of a mule, while camping in a remote location in the Sierra Madre Occidental in Durango state. No sound recordings were obtained of the species by Rhein or any other recordist. In a 1997 interview with Lammertink, Rhein commented that the Imperial Woodpecker was “like a great big turkey flying in front of me.” Rhein died in 1999 at age 89.

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 United States and Cuba. A 2005 study by the Cornell Lab reported the rediscovery of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas, but subsequent region-wide surveys did not find evidence of a surviving population.

At, 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.


Tim Gallagher: (607) 254-2443;
Martjan Lammertink 011 54 93751 609785 (cell phone in Argentina);

%d bloggers like this: