The Largest Woodpecker in the World

Study analyzes only known footage of the largest woodpecker that ever lived

The imperial woodpecker perched on a tree. (Credit: William L. Rhein)
ScienceDaily (Oct. 26, 2011) — The imperial woodpecker -- 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 2-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 learn more about the species' behavior and its habitat -- determined by tracking down the exact filming location during a 2010 expedition.

In the 85-second color film, which is available for viewing online, a female imperial woodpecker hitches up, forages on the trunks of large Durango pines and then launches into flight.

The film was shot by dentist William Rhein, who filmed the bird with a hand-held movie camera from the back of a mule while camping in a remote location in the Sierra Madre Occidental in Durango state. In a 1997 interview with Lammertink, Rhein, who died in 1999, commented that the woodpecker was "like a great big turkey flying in front of me."

This illustration of the imperial woodpecker was painted by graduate student Evaristo Hernández-Fernández, a Bartels Science Illustration intern, and is the cover image of the latest issue of The Auk.