Imperial woodpecker -- 帝啄木鸟 (Campephilus imperialis)

Imperial woodpecker, museum specimen
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Imperial woodpecker fact file

Imperial woodpecker description

GenusCampephilus (1)

The imperial woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis) is the largest woodpecker in the world. Although classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List, the imperial woodpecker was thought to have gone extinct in the late 20th century (1) (3).

The huge imperial woodpecker is predominantly black, with large white patches on each wing, and two narrow, white stripes extending up its upper back, giving the appearance of braces (2). The large bill of the imperial woodpecker is ivory-coloured (3).

The male imperial woodpecker is distinguished by its red nape and a distinctive red and black crescent-shaped crest on its head. The long, black crest of the female curls forward (3). The juvenile imperial woodpecker is browner than the adults (2).

The vocalisations of the imperial woodpecker have been reported as cackling notes and toy trumpet-like calls (2) (3).

Carpintero Gigante, Pito Imperial, Pitoreal, Pitorreal Ocotero.
Length: 56 - 60 cm (2)
700 g (3)

Imperial woodpecker biology

There have been limited sightings of the imperial woodpecker, and so very little is known about its biology. The imperial woodpecker is thought to have similar foraging behaviour to the closely related ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), and will use its large bill to hollow out the bark from dead or decaying trees to access beetle larvae (6).

The patchy distribution of the imperial woodpecker's primary food source means that it is probably best exploited by groups of birds occupying very large areas of pine forest. In the past, the imperial woodpecker could be found in groups of up to 20 individuals, although it typically occurred in groups of between 4 and 8 (2).

The imperial woodpecker has been recorded breeding between February and June, when up to four eggs are probably laid (2). It is thought that the juveniles remain with the adults until at least the next nesting season (6).


Imperial woodpecker range

The imperial woodpecker was recorded throughout the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in Mexico (2) (5).


Imperial woodpecker habitat

The imperial woodpecker prefers large areas of continuous, open pine forest at elevations above 2,000 metres. Suitable forests are usually located on plateaus and are highly rich in mature trees, as well as dead, standing trees known as ‘snags’ (3).


Imperial woodpecker status

The imperial woodpecker is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix I of CITES (4).

IUCN Red List species status – Critically Endangered


Imperial woodpecker threats

The imperial woodpecker has not been recorded since the mid-20th century. Extensive habitat loss, as well as hunting for recreation, food and medicine, has hugely reduced population numbers, leading to its possible extinction (2).

Large-scale logging has destroyed much of the imperial woodpeckers habitat, and by 1996, the area of suitable breeding habitat had been reduced to just 22 square kilometres (2). Much of the Sierra Madre region is now used for growing illegal crops of opium poppies and marijuana, further contributing to the loss of the imperial woodpecker’s habitat (7).

Recent expeditions to this area have found that much of the habitat is now unsuitable for the imperial woodpecker. It is thought that if any remaining populations do exist, then they must be extremely small (4).


Imperial woodpecker conservation

Protected and managed areas of old-growth forest in the Sierra Madre do exist; however, illegal drug trafficking and levels of violence are high, making conservation of these areas difficult (7).

A number of searches have been carried out to find evidence of the imperial woodpecker, but these have all proved unsuccessful (2) (3). Searches of areas of suitable habitat are continuing and all reports of sightings are investigated in order to find any possible evidence that the imperial woodpecker still survives (2).


Find out more

Find out more about the imperial woodpecker and its conservation:



This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

This species information was authored as part of the Arkive and Universities Scheme.


The stage in an animal’s lifecycle after it hatches from the egg. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but usually are unable to reproduce.


  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2012)
  2. BirdLife International (November 2011)
  3. Lammertink, M., Gallagher, T.W., Rosenberg, K.V., Fitzpatrick, J.W., Liner, E., Rojas-Tomé, J.  and Escalante, P.(2011) Film documentation of the probably extinct imperial woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis). The Auk, 128(4): 671-677. Available at:
  4. CITES (January, 2012)
  5. Long, A. (2011) Imperial Woodpecker found on 1956 film but not on surveys to film location. BirdLife International, 27 October. Available at:
  6. Tanner, J. (1964) The decline and present status of the imperial woodpecker of Mexico. The Auk, 81: 74-81.
  7. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology: All about Birds - Imperial woodpecker (November, 2011)

Image credit

Imperial woodpecker, museum specimen  
Imperial woodpecker, museum specimen

© Don Gorney

Don Gorney


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