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World’s biggest woodpecker species feared extinct

For Immediate Release

World’s biggest woodpecker species is feared extinct

Cambridge, 11th July 2003 – BirdLife International researchers have expressed their fear that the stunning Imperial Woodpecker, Campephilus imperialis, may now be extinct after an expedition to the last area reporting sightings of the bird found no evidence of a resident population. [1,2]

The black-and-white woodpecker, at 60cm-long the biggest in the world, was formerly found throughout the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of northwestern Mexico, and was not historically a rare species within its habitat of pine forests at high altitudes. However, the last confirmed report of the bird was in 1956, although there had been eight local reports of sightings since that date in two remote areas.[3]

A joint expedition by BirdLife International and a local conservation NGO, Prosima, spent 16 days in an isolated part of north central Durango state, where in 1996, the woodpecker had been sighted in a pristine canyon. [4] The site was close to an area where, two years before, on an extensive expedition lasting 11 months, researchers found evidence of the bird, but had no sightings.

The Imperial Woodpecker will now be listed in the 2004 IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct). [5] The bird’s decline has come through the loss of its habitat – it required extensive areas (26 km2 per pair) of continuous open and untouched pine forest with dead trees for feeding and nesting. Although large areas of pine forests remain, they are logged, with dead trees cut down. Hunting is also thought to have contributed to the bird’s downfall.

“The unexpected lead that this most recent expedition followed up represented a last realistic hope of finding the magnificent Imperial Woodpecker,” says BirdLife International’s Americas Programme Manager, David Wege. “Once found throughout the huge Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico, right up to within 80 km of the US border, targeted searches over the last 10 years have failed to find convincing evidence that it still exists.”

“Few people can imagine a bird more impressive than the much publicised, and closely related Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but the Imperial Woodpecker was 20% bigger at 60 cm long – that’s one huge woodpecker and it’s a tragic day to lose almost the last hope of it’s survival. The world will be a poorer place without the Imperial Woodpecker,” concludes Wege.

For further information, please contact Gareth Gardiner–Jones at BirdLife International in Cambridge, UK: tel. +44 (0)1223 279903;


1) BirdLife International is a global alliance of conservation organisations working in more than 100 countries who, together, are the leading authority on the status of birds, their habitats and the issues and problems affecting bird life.

2) An illustration of the Imperial Woodpecker and photographs of the expedition area are available upon request.

3) The male had a red crest and nape with the female lacking the red but having a long, curling black crest.

4) The expedition was funded by the Phyllis Barclay-Smith conservation fund.

5) Possibly Extinct is a new tag assigned to some Critically Endangered species by BirdLife International to indicate those species which are likely to be extinct, but for which there is a small chance that they may still be extant. Hence they will not be listed in the Extinct category until local or unconfirmed reports have been discounted, and adequate surveys have failed to find the species. Imperial Woodpecker cannot be presumed to be Extinct until maps showing that no areas of suitable habitat remain have been ground-truthed. Critically Endangered according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List criteria means that a species faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.


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