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Imperial woodpecker -- largest that ever lived -- caught on film

October 29, 2011 |  2:08 pm

The footage is old and the camera work is shaky. But as soon as ornithologist Martjan Lammertink saw the 85-second, 16-mm film, he knew he'd found it: the only photographic evidence of the Imperial woodpecker — the largest woodpecker that ever lived.

Some have called the 2-foot-tall bird "majestic." Others have described it as "near-mythical." But the guy who shot the film — dentist and amateur ornithologist William Rhein — said it was more like "a great big turkey flying in front of me."

"You can even see his toupee there," he says in a voiceover of some of the footage.

Rhein took the film in 1956 from the back of a mule while camping in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in Durango, Mexico. The footage might never have come to light if Lammertink hadn't come across a reference to the film in a letter Rhein wrote to a fellow ornithologist. Lammertink was determined to track down Rhein and this invaluable footage.

In 1997, after years of trying, he finally did. And it was just in the nick of time. Rhein died in 1999.

Despite the poor quality of the film, Lammertink was able to identify the bird as an adult female imperial woodpecker. The footage shows the bird foraging, hitching up trees and then flying away — the white feathers on its wingtips clearly visible.

Now, in the terrific article "Return to Durango," published recently on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website, Tim Gallagher documents both how Lammertink initially found the footage and his journey back to the site where it was taken.

In 2010, Gallagher and Lammertink set out on an expedition in conjunction with members of the conservation group Pronatura Noroeste to try to find the film site and, ideally, evidence that the Imperial woodpecker might still be alive.

There is no happy ending here. Although some of the people with whom the research team spoke said there had been sightings of the bird through the early '90s, the scientists ultimately concluded that the imperial woodpecker became extinct in the '50s.

"One man told us the grim story of a forester in the early 1950s who had encouraged the local people to kill imperial woodpeckers because he believed they were destroying valuable timber," Gallagher writes. "He even supplied the villagers with poison to smear on the birds’ foraging trees. It’s easy to imagine these poisoned trees attracting imperial woodpeckers from miles around — even from the remote and barely accessible mesas we were exploring — and killing them."

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-- Deborah Netburn

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