Hunt For A Vanishing Woodpecker

In 1956, dentist and amateur ornithologist William Rhein captured the rare Imperial woodpecker on 16 mm color film. Although this 85 second clip is the only known photographic record of the bird, Rhein kept the film to himself until after he died. Writer and bird fanatic Tim Gallagher tells the story of Rhein's expedition to look for the bird, and his own trip to the same mountains over 50 years later.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

With us now is Flora Lichtman. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Our Video Pick of the Week. And, of course, it's going to be something special.

LICHTMAN: This is a special one. We go back in time for this one. This story - let me set the scene for you. The story starts in the '50s with a dentist, William Rhein, who is also basically a bird fanatic - in fact, to the point that he makes these self-funded expeditions all over the world, including to Mexico several times, to look for one rare, giant woodpecker, the Imperial woodpecker. It's two feet tall.

FLATOW: Just like the one they've been searching for...

LICHTMAN: It is a very close relative to the one they've been searching for here in this country.

FLATOW: Yeah. Right.

LICHTMAN: The ivory-billed woodpecker is its sort of closest relation. So he - on one of these trips, he manages to get this bird on film, and no one has captured this, to anyone's knowledge, on - in a photo or on film. But he wasn't happy with the footage, it sounds like, so he kept it under wraps. So for the longest time, the bird - the ornithology community thought there was no footage. Eventually, a very persistent ornithologist at Cornell tracks down a mention of the film and goes and drives to Rhein's house - you know, this is 40 or 50 years after this expedition - gets him to pop on the projector and gets this footage. He brings it back to Cornell and shows it to Tim Gallagher, who's sort of the star of our story in this video. And Tim Gallagher, when he sees this footage, this is how he describes it.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

TIM GALLAGHER: I mean, it was incredible. I mean, this bird's hitching up the tree and chipping off chunks of bark. It even takes off and flies three different times. It was just like seeing a ghost.

FLATOW: Wow. And you have the video, that - footage of that video up on our Video Pick of the Week.

LICHTMAN: You can see it for yourself.

FLATOW: And it is this incredible woodpecker that just - do we know? Is it vanished? Is it extinct? Is it - where is it?

LICHTMAN: It's heavily endangered, if not extinct. So this video, actually, prompted Gallagher to go back to this very spot where Rhein camped and see if he could see - find this woodpecker, and in that journey had a lot of sort of scary adventures. It's become drug-growing country.

FLATOW: It's in Mexico. Yeah.

LICHTMAN: It's in the mountains of Mexico. And so he had quite an adventure looking, and he didn't find one. And he actually said that he was glad he didn't see one, because it would just be too sad, because there's almost no way you could protect a bird in that country.

FLATOW: Right. And that would be impossible, right, because of the violence that's going on there. You have the drugs - yeah.

LICHTMAN: It's so lawless. I mean, the people can't even be protected, let alone birds.

FLATOW: Wow. And so he - you have him on the Video Pick of the Week up there...

LICHTMAN: We have the...

FLATOW: ...the video - the bird's in a tree, moving up and down, flying out of the tree.

LICHTMAN: Chipping bark, you should go - definitely go see it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: But there's one other thing we want to do today. So we had - if you may remember, a few weeks ago, we did this contest with Astronaut Don Pettit...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...about the egg in space. Why does the watery egg wobble in space? And we have a winner.

FLATOW: We have a winner.

LICHTMAN: We have a winner. Frank...

FLATOW: Where's my bell?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Frank Tartaglia from Belleville, New Jersey said - he was one of our winning answers. He was picked randomly, and he won a SCIFRI pocket protector for his winning answer. And I just want to have him - I just want to play his answer for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE CALL)

FRANK TARTAGLIA: My answer was that the moment of inertia was moving in the water-filled egg. And as Astronaut Pettit pointed out in the podcast, when he was spinning the book, the moment of inertia was moving when he spun it that certain way. And I said, wow, that's the answer. That's why it's wobbling, because the book was wobbling.

LICHTMAN: Are you a scientist?

TARTAGLIA: No, no, no. I'm a computer programmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE CALL)

TARTAGLIA: So that pocket protector goes right along with my nerd image. In fact, it's been, you know, it's been many years since I've had one because they're not easy to find. But I will wear mine proudly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Very heartwarming.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Yes...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I'm wearing mine proudly right now, too.

FLATOW: Yes, we all are. And, you know, we sold out of them. Let's - we're going to make a whole bunch of them - batch of them for...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And we'll have more contests.

FLATOW: More contests.

LICHTMAN: So there should - there will be other opportunities.

FLATOW: Yes, absolutely. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Our Video Pick of the Week at - you can see this rare woodpecker up there in our website from old footage taken over 50 years ago of the woodpecker. That's about all the time we have for today.

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