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Emperor of the Woodpeckers

By Tim Gallagher
Photographs by Bobby Harrison


At two feet in length, the Imperial Woodpecker is the largest woodpecker that ever lived. Unlike the closely related Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird of the bottomland swamp forests and bayous of the American South, the Imperial has only been found in the high-altitude pine forests (generally 7,000 feet or more above sea level) in northwestern Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental and Trans Volcanic Belt. The total range of the species is only about 100 miles wide and 900 miles long, reaching from about 50 miles below the U.S. border southward to the Mexican state of Michoac√°n.

The Imperial Woodpecker is extremely habitat-specific, preferring the high, flat mesa areas where massive old-growth pines tower above in a parklike setting. There the birds use their powerful, chisel-like bills to peel back the bark of the big pines and expose their favorite food, beetle grubs as big as your thumb.

Unfortunately, these vast tracts of big timber were the most desirable for logging, and their location on the flat, open mesas made them easy to harvest. Most of the Imperial Woodpecker’s primary habitat has been logged. The birds were also heavily hunted for food, out of curiosity, or to use in folk medicine. If any of them yet remain, they must be clinging to tiny remnants of old-growth forest or surviving in less-optimal habitat.