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Last Glimpses of a Lost Imperial

Infrequently do I come across a video, a piece of writing, or a photograph that I deem worthy of sharing.  Reiteration isn’t something I think I can escape creatively by avoiding such props, I just don’t find it worth my time or very thought provoking.  Every so often however, I come upon something that is too good to pass up.  In the Auk (the journal of the American Ornithologists Union) this October, a paper was published concluding what most already knew, the Imperial Woodpecker is probably extinct.  But more importantly it also provided restored footage, the only images known, of this species.  This video is more than just another youtube clip, it’s a last documentation, a last glimpse of a bird that probably winked out thirty years before I was born.

At 22-24in long, this bird was nearly as long as a Common Raven, living among giant pines in rugged, treacherous mountains of Northern and Central Mexico.  A woodpecker this size of a raven is hard to imagine.  Because of typical human evils, that’s all we get to do, imagine.  Followers of Wingtrip know that I am a staunch supporter of museum collections and skins exist of these birds, but they do nothing to impress the passion of a live bird, knowing it in the vibrancy of animation.  You can measure, observe, pry details from the preservation but it doesn’t bring the bird back.

Out of human remorse, Imperial Woodpeckers are left as critically endangered on inventories by international conservation groups like Birdlife International and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature .  This is not a listing born of any information or real hope that these birds are still out there.  The 2010 expedition to the Sierra Madre Occidental of Northern Mexico (specifically Durango), where the film was made by dentist and amateur Ornithologist William L. Rhein gave little hope that any of these giants still exist.

Devastating logging practices long ago dealt with sizable stands of old growth pines in these mountains.  Even inaccessible stands, left alone in the onslaught of the 1940s-50s, are now being cleared to grow opium poppies or marijuana.  Birds of their size needed many acres (26 square Km) to sustain a pair, which simply don’t exist anymore.  Paired with massive habitat loss, these birds were considered useful in folk medicine, the nestlings a delicacy by the native peoples of the mountainous regions of Northern Mexico, and finally a pest to valuable timer needing extermination.   The last known bird was a recently shot individual in 1956, the same year this video was filmed.

Watch a female, her crest of curled feathers wobbling as she sidles up a tree.  The great flash of white on black of the flying bird.  This should be strong warning to my generation that we should not leave even less natural wonder for our children than our grandparents and parents did for us.

I’ll be thinking of the dead and the living this weekend, an appropriate thing to dwell on.

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