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Desert Diary
Birds/Imperial Woodpecker


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The recent discovery in Arkansas of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, feared extinct since the 1940s, is reason for celebration. It had beaten the odds and survived the hunting and logging that decimated its numbers. In our own Chihuahuan Desert Region, a woodpecker of even grander proportions is currently in the same ether-world between survival and extinction.

The Imperial Woodpecker, largest in the world, was last seen in the 1950s. It had existed for millennia in the old growth conifer forests of Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental. This gargantuan woodpecker fed on beetle larvae infesting dead and dying pines. Pressure from Tarahumara Indians hunting them for food and feathers were factors in their decline, but modern hunting and collecting, as well as extensive logging in the 20th century, may have spelled doom for this impressive species. Yet, rumors of its existence continue to trickle in. It may still survive in some isolated forest refuge. Perhaps the resurrection of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker will spur efforts to locate this elusive species that was, and may still be, a truly unique Chihuahuan Desert treasure.

pen and ink

Contributor: Scott Cutler, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Male and female Imperial Woodpeckers
Male (left) and female Imperial Woodpeckers. Centennial Museum specimens. Photograph by Scott Cutler.


Pennington, C.W. 1963. The Tarahumar [sic] of Mexico. University of Utah Press.

Tanner, J.T. 1964 The Decline and Present Status of the Imperial Woodpecker of Mexico. Auk 81:74-81.

Web Resources

Learning Link

Imperial Woodpecker