Originally created in animation form in 1940, Woody Woodpecker first appeared in theatrical short stories, then in cartoons broadcast on television starting in 1957, and he remained an animation staple until 1972 when his creator (Walter Lantz) closed down his studio. The Woody Woodpecker Show was one of my favorite cartoons growing up and just recently I was able to capture in photograph the real life model for the show’s lead character, the Pileated Woodpecker. The pileated and its crazy laugh was the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker.
The pileated is a magnificent, flashy, loud, but shy bird.
Several characteristics make this bird quite distinct from other woodpeckers:
At 16-19 inches in length (about the size of a common crow) the pileated is the largest living woodpecker in North America. It is dull black overall with a white stripe down each side of neck, and a conspicuous red crest (the only woodpecker with a crest.) In flight, the great size, slow and steady sweeping wing-beats (the wings seeming to close between each beat), reveal a large amount of white in the underwing with flashing black and white coloration helping to identify it at a distance.
I photographed this female pileated woodpecker feeding on a dying pine tree in my backyard in early December. (Notice how the bird anchors itself with its sharp claws and stabilizes itself with its strong stiff tail feathers. This anatomy also enables the bird to climb tree trunks.) Both male and female pileated sport a red crest, however the female’s forehead is brownish and the male has a scarlet forehead and a red patch on the cheek. While the pileated in flight will certainly catch your eye, there is a good chance you will hear it first. The call is a high, loud, wild yik note or series of notes. Such a large bird needs large diameter trees because it roosts and nests in cavities (with large oval or oblong entry holes) that it excavates with its chisel like bill. Loud, resonant, territorial drumming and chopping blows herald the presence of a feeding pileated woodpecker. They sometimes sound not so much like a woodpecker, but rather as a strong person wielding an axe. Palm-sized pieces of bark and soft rotted wood fly as the bird strips bark or excavates to reach the ant galleries, beetle larvae, and other insect prey it needs. Pileated pairs stay together year-round, presumably mate for life, and the birds in general occupy the same territories throughout their lives. So look for and listen for the pileated woodpecker in your neck of the woods as it could be the start of a long relationship.