CONSERVATION CORNER: The Real Life Woody Woodpecker

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

Photo caption: The pileated woodpecker’s raucous calls and crested head inspired the classic cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker.

Image courtesy of Noppadol Paothong, Missouri Department of Conservation

One of the most recognized and popular cartoon characters of all time came from nature. Generations of children (and adults) have grown up hearing the famous and raucous laugh of Woody Woodpecker on both movie and television screens. Birders and nature enthusiasts will recognize a hint of a real bird in that zany sound . . . a pileated woodpecker! And as April progresses, we’ll be hearing Woody’s real-life cousins in forests, woods, and even in parks and suburban neighborhoods.

It’s no secret that cartoonist Walter Lantz drew inspiration for one of his most enduring characters from the pileated woodpecker. Woody’s prominent red head crest mimics the feathers on the actual woodpecker’s head. The cartoon’s large bill also seems to suggest the pileated’s own large beak, which in the real bird’s case is long and sharper.

Pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers found in Missouri. They are mostly dark or black in color, with white highlights and a red crest. Males have an entirely red crown and a red moustache streak. Both genders of this crow-sized bird have horizontal black and white stripes on their faces and a white stripe that extends down their necks.

Woody, the animated woodpecker, was created in 1940. Legend has it that Lantz was staying at a cabin in the woods when a pileated woodpecker annoyed him by incessantly pecking on the roof and even putting holes in it. It’s said that Lantz wanted to go for a shotgun, but his wife convinced him to get his frustrations out on paper instead by creating the cartoon character. The authenticity of the story is in question, but in the early cartoons, Woody’s persona was indeed a lot more mischievous and troublemaking. Over time, Lantz made the character more friendly and likeable.

The real pileated woodpeckers don’t do their pecking and drumming to annoy humans. Whether it’s a male establishing territory, or a courtship ritual performed by either sex, drumming is an important communication tool for the birds. They drum powerfully on trees, in a slow, steady manner that creates a deep rolling pulse lasting around three seconds. Amazingly, special spongy bones in its scull keep the pileated from scrambling its brain with the force of this jackhammer-like motion.

Pileated woodpeckers also use their ultra powerful beaks to rip through decayed wood, grabbing beetle grubs and carpenter ants for food. Though common in Missouri’s forested places, pileated woodpeckers are shy and reclusive. They do make their presence known though with their high, clear, series of piping calls that last several seconds, and can sound a bit like maniacal laughter—not unlike their cartoon counterpart!

Occasionally, they may also come to backyard suet feeders, so it’s worth the effort to look for one of these amazing birds there.

Woody Woodpecker is a reminder that the elements of nature leave their mark on so many seemingly unrelated aspects of our lives… just as the echoes of a real pileated woodpecker resonate in the laughter of a favorite cartoon character.