The largest, most forgotten woodpecker? A photo-ghost of Campephilus imperialis
most birders are aware of the recent claimed ‘rediscovery’ of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the US, which had been thought extinct for some decades. Millions of dollars have been spent to track down the last remaining Ivory-bills and conserve what are thought to be their last habitats.
Far fewer birders know that in Mexico, just south of the US border, the largest woodpecker in the world has been allowed to slip into probable extinction almost without a murmur. There are credible sightings of Imperial Woodpecker from as recently as the 1980s and their original natural range was far larger than that of the Ivory-billed — thus making them better candidates, in my view, for conservation expenditure. But few people have gone to try to find the last Imperials, if they exist, and the big bird conservation organisations hardly ever mention it.
A cynic would say that this is because it’s harder to raise conservation dollars in Mexico, and perhaps a bit tougher to work there. I hope there are better reasons for this comparative neglect.
During a quick visit to the Natural History Museum Vienna, in Austria, in 2007 I was stopped in my tracks by this old mounted specimen in a glass case, doubtless shot by an early collector for a few dollars and casually stuffed and stuck on a post by one of the museum’s taxidermists. No sign told visitors that this was the globe’s largest woodpecker, and that it was probably extinct. It was just arranged in the case along with a whole lot of other old, ratty mounted birds.
How many other amazing birds, like the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, are we likely to lose in our lifetimes?