“The Inspiration for Woody Woodpecker”

Photo by Tom Dennis

By Tom Dennis

Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus

When a friend recently asked me to write an article on the Pileated Woodpecker I checked my records and discovered I hadn’t written any articles on our various woodpecker species!  I repent of this oversight with the first of several articles on this wonderful family of birds.  I’m not going to explain why Picidae (pronounced Pick-a-dee) was chosen as the family name.

An old article from the 10,000 BIRDS website states, “As long as the ivory-bill’s existence remains ambiguous, North America’s reigning woodpecker must be the Pileated Woodpecker.  This hulking beauty, black and white with a preposterously scarlet crest, is a most pleasing presence across much of the United States and Canada.  That crazy coiffure along with its whinnying laugh betray this bird’s claim to fame as the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker but if you catch sight of Dryocopus pileatus, you probably won’t be thinking of cartoons.”  What you may be thinking, especially on your first sighting is, “Wow that is one huge and beautiful tree wrecking machine”.

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Pileated Woodpeckers are the second largest woodpecker on the continent, after the possibly extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  They are 16 to 19 inches long, have a wingspan of 26 to 30 inches and weigh an average of 11 ounces.  They have a mostly black body with large white under-wing patches that are conspicuous during flight.  The male’s head has a prominent red cap and crest, white face and neck stripes, red moustache stripe, and a dark gray bill.  The female is similar but has a black moustache stripe and forehead.

These birds are found in forested areas across Canada, the eastern United States and parts of the Pacific coast. They prefer mature, hardwood forests and heavily wooded parks, often in large stands of forest.  They have experienced an increase in population since 1966, largely due to habitat protection and restoration, and removal of invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn which seem to interfere with their foraging on the ground and lower tree levels.  They are known to inhabit smaller woodlots as long as there is a scattering of tall trees.  They excavate rectangular holes while feeding for ants and wood boring beetles and also for nest building.  Nesting site trees are known to have as many as sixteen holes to facilitate an escape should a predator enter the tree.  They will also peck holes around the entrances to allow sap to flow and discourage some predators from entering.  Although they eat mainly insects they supplement their diet with fruits, nuts, and berries including poison ivy berries.  When dining on ants they lap them up from deep crevices with their long tongue.

Abandoned Pileated Woodpecker homes are used by a variety of other animals including several species of tree nesting ducks.  They are non-migratory birds but are still protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.  This is important to note as they can cause damage to homes and trees on private property (they love insects inside wood and they can’t read no trespassing signs…or any signs for that matter)!  Keep your eyes open for large, crow-sized birds with white wing patches flying overhead and you may sight your first Pileated Woodpecker.  As for proper pronunciation of the common name; I recommend you look it up in the dictionary to get an educated opinion.

If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot on the first Monday of the month, October through May at 6:45 PM.  Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, and be sure to friend us.

Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, and naturalist.

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