World’s Largest Woodpecker Believed Extinct

CAMBRIDGE, England, July 23, 2003 (ENS) - The world's largest woodpecker, once found in Mexico and the United States, may now be extinct, according to researchers with BirdLife International. No trace of the black and white imperial woodpecker was found during a scientific expedition to the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of northwestern Mexico, the last area where the bird was seen.

David Wege, Americas Programme Manager with BirdLife International, said, "Once found throughout the huge Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico, targeted searches over the last 10 years have failed to find convincing evidence that the species still exists."

Known by its scientific name Campephilus imperialis, the imperial woodpecker at 60 centimeters (23.6 inches) in length is the largest woodpecker identified by scientists.

It is a close relative of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, from the Caribbean and the southeastern United States, which is also presumed extinct. "Few people can imagine a bird more impressive than the much publicized, and closely related ivory-billed woodpecker, Wege said, "but the imperial woodpecker was 20 percent bigger."

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Imperial woodpeckers can now been seen only in museums. This adult male in the Museum of Natural History in Vienna was donated by Franz Steindachner in 1885 when he was director of the museum's Zoological Department. (Photo courtesy Museum of Natural History, Vienna)
While the imperial woodpecker was hunted for food and for medicine in the early 1900s, it was not historically a rare species within its habitat of high altitude pine forests. But the last confirmed report of the species was in 1956, although there have been eight local reports in two remote areas since that date.

A joint expedition by BirdLife International and a local Mexican conservation organization, Prosima, spent 16 days in an isolated part of Durango state, where in 1996, the woodpecker had been sighted in a pristine canyon. The expedition was funded by the Phyllis Barclay-Smith Conservation Fund.

The site researchers explored was close to an area where two years before on an extensive expedition lasting 11 months, researchers had found some evidence of the species, but they were unable to see any woodpeckers.

The imperial woodpecker’s decline has occurred largely through the loss of its habitat, mainly the deforestation and clearance of the old growth pine and oak woods, researchers said.

The birds require areas as large as 26 square kilometers (10 square miles) of continuous open and untouched pine forest for each woodpecker pair, with dead trees for feeding and nesting.

Although large areas of pine forests remain in the Sierra Madre Occidental, they are logged and the dead trees with their insect inhabitants have been removed. Hunting is also thought to have contributed to the bird's extinction.

On June 2, 1970, the International Affairs section of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Imperial woodpecker as endangered in its entire range in the high altitude Mexican forests.

A report published by the Mexican government, conducted by scientists from eight universities, lists the imperial woodpecker in its survey of the biodiversity of the River Yaqui region in Sonora and Chihuahua states. The area is characterized by intensive agriculture and cattle ranching, mining of tungsten, iron, silver, zinc and lead, logging, and ecotourism.

The report from the Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad (CONABIO) says that the region where the imperial woodpecker lived has been contaminated by the abuse of agricultural chemicals and herbicides used in antinarcotic campaigns, and has been impacted by alteration of waterways for the generation of electric power and irrigation, logging, and tourism development.

The imperial woodpecker will now be listed in the 2004 IUCN Red List of endangered species under the new classification of Critically Endangered Possibly Extinct.

It’s a tragic day to lose almost the last hope of its survival," said Wege. "The world will be a poorer place without the imperial woodpecker.”