Uncovered Film Footage Offers Rare Look at an Extinct Bird (Video)

MacaulayLibrary/Video screen capture

For over a half-century, all that remained of the Imperial Woodpecker's millennia of evolution on planet Earth were taxidermied museum specimens and drawings in ornithological volumes -- but thanks to the discovery of a rare 16-mm film, the extinct bird flies again. Native to the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico, the woodpecker species is believed to have gone extinct with the complete destruction of its habitat from logging, with nary a sighting after 1956. But experts recently uncovered amateur footage of a female bird taken decades earlier, and with it are getting a final peek into a species likely lost to the world.

An 85-second film clip released this week by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers a poignant, fleeting glimpse of what was once the world's largest woodpecker, presumed extinct for decades. The footage was shot by William Rhein, a dentist who traveled to Mexico in hopes of capturing the fated bird on film. For years, the 16-mm film lay hidden away until Rhein's son donated the film to Cornell a few years back.

To Cornell woodpecker expert Martjan Lammertink, who has authored a new study based on the footage, the chance to see the extinct bird in action is a bittersweet experience, as he explains to The Wall Street Journal:

"It is stunning to look back through time with this film and see the magnificent imperial woodpecker moving through its old-growth forest environment. And it is heartbreaking to know that both the bird and the forest are gone."

Imperial woodpeckers experienced a dramatic decline in the mid-20th century due to the destruction of its habitat in the Sierra Madre Occidental highlands, along with being over-hunted for its connection to folk medicine.

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Tags: Birds | Extinction

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