Last of Her Kind: Footage of an Imperial Woodpecker

Candice Gaukel Andrews February 2, 2012 16

Imperial woodpeckers are difficult to distinguish from ivory-billed woodpeckers; however, imperial woodpeckers preferred open, montane pine-and-oak forests, whereas ivory-billed woodpeckers favored thick, hardwood-and-pine forests located in lowland swamps. ©Delaware Museum of Natural History

Campephilus imperialis (the imperial woodpecker) may have been the largest woodpecker that ever lived. The last documented sighting of this two-foot-tall bird happened in 1956 in the state of Durango, in the high-altitude, old-growth pine forest of the Sierra Madre in Mexico.

Pennsylvania dentist and amateur ornithologist William Rhein captured the only known footage of a living representative of this species, a female, which you can watch below. Filmed in Mexico in 1956, this 85-second, 16mm, color movie was taken with a handheld camera from the back of a mule.

It’s grainy and dark and not quite up to the quality of today’s amateur photographers. Nonetheless, this little bit of what-once-was is guaranteed to send chills down your spine, as you realize you’re watching a bird that is likely the last of her kind.

The story of how the Cornell Lab of Ornithology got the footage is an adventure in itself. Watch the film, then read the full tale. It’s not often we get to see a living creature—more than 50 years extinct—go about her daily life, oblivious of the great loss she will come to represent for us all.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,




  1. Debra Kimball March 25, 2014 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    One of these wood peckers was spotted in Arkansas a few years ago. There was an article in our newspaper telling how they had been thought to be extinct and the last time one was seen. Very interesting and hopeful for a full rebound of this delightful bird!

  2. Travis March 6, 2012 at 6:37 pm - Reply

    That is incredible footage. And, of course, Cornell has it! Their bird library is awe-inspiring.

  3. James Beard aka Noodin February 18, 2012 at 9:04 pm - Reply

    So very special! Thank you Candice!

  4. Miriam Olin February 14, 2012 at 5:22 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful piece Candice. I love birding and this was certainly a rare treat!

  5. Dianne M. Kenney, PhD February 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    How sad that this beautiful creature is not still around.

  6. Valli Sanstrom February 7, 2012 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing. I love the Piliated Woodpecker we have here in the Pacific NW. One day while hiking in one of Port Angeles’s urban stream ravines I came upon three pairs, yes six of them. I’ll never forget that day. Since then they have mostly eluded me but there’s no mistaking their abandoned nests.

  7. Ken Snyder February 5, 2012 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing Candice. I will pass that on to my serious birder friends.

    If I ever get to WI I’ll be sure to grab your upcoming book before hand. Also, looks like an excellent blog at Gaiam. Will check it out as time permits. Thanks again for the video post and future reading material.

  8. Ed Ervin February 4, 2012 at 6:52 am - Reply

    Cheryl-Anne stated “I think there should be a book project in the works! ” Great news, there is now such a book! In 2009, The Travails of Two Woodpeckers: Ivory-Bills & imperials was published. This book is very engaging. It provides the history of research by early dedicated naturalists through the species fates. So enjoyable I have given it as gift a several occasions. I highly recommend this book!

  9. Eileen M. Antolino February 4, 2012 at 6:51 am - Reply

    What a treasure, thanks Candice! I remember seeing my first Pileated…around 1970 in a cemetery surrounded by deep woods in northern New Jersey very near the NY State line. There were a pair hopping about the headstones not minding at all that I had stopped my little country jaunt to take in this rare treat. Their laughing calls reminded me of those “Woody Woodpecker” cartoons I watched nearly 20 years earlier as a child. I am so grateful that this iconic bird has been immortalized in the minds of a generation that grew up mimicking that distinctive ha ha ha ha ha!!

    I’ve only seen a Pileated Woodpecker a couple more times in my life…at the very top of the state near High Point while evaluating farms for preservation. The sighting wasn’t as clear as that immortal echoing laugh.

  10. Ann Wllmer February 3, 2012 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    I heard the story about the ornithology enthusiastic who sighted this bird on NPR. How interesting to see it? Thanks for sharing.

  11. Timothy Collins February 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    The same feeling of mourning, if not worse, that I had when I saw Martha, the last passenger pigeon, on display at the Cincinnati Zoo, more than half a century after her death in 1914. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Steve Mills February 3, 2012 at 9:25 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing Candice.

  13. Cheryl-Anne Sturken February 3, 2012 at 8:43 am - Reply

    Candice, I thought the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (also known as the Oh My God bird) was the largest woodpecker. But, perhaps that is just to North America. This footage is incredible, and I think there should be a book project in the works! I am an avid bird watcher and have been lucky enough to have multiple sightings of the Pileated woodpecker in my area. Those are the big, black white and red ones that look very much like Woody Woodpecker. Thanks so much for sharing, C.A.S.

  14. Nancy Mueller February 3, 2012 at 7:33 am - Reply

    What an amazing, ultimately heartbreaking story, Candice. Thanks so much for sharing it with us here.

  15. Mal T. Hyett February 3, 2012 at 1:23 am - Reply

    Beautiful creatures like this die mostly through the actions of us ‘intelligent’ humans.

    Unfortunately many seem not to be able to learn from the mistakes.

    Thank you for sharing the footage.


  16. Bonnie Jean Flach February 2, 2012 at 12:59 pm - Reply

    saw the little video thanks for sharing. Always tragic to hear of a species of bird/animal/plant become extinct.

Leave A Response »