Woody Woodpecker's Real Life Model

Blog Category
Discover Nature Notes
Published Display Date
Jan 06, 2019

Cartoonist Walter Lantz used the pileated woodpecker's jaunty crest and loud call as models for his most-famous creation, Woody Woodpecker. It's call is less of a "ha-hah, ha-ha-hah" and more of a high-pitched, maniacal laugh. The pileated woodpecker is large and in charge in Missouri's forests.

If Edgar Allen Poe had written about a pileated woodpecker instead of a raven, it wouldn’t have been gently tapping, rapping at his chamber door. It would have been chopping, chopping–and probably would have done the door some serious damage.

The pileated woodpecker is our largest woodpecker. The crow-sized bird uses its powerful beak to tear into decayed wood in search of beetle grubs and carpenter ants. Its spongy skull bones protect its brain during tree hammering. Fist-sized, rectangular holes in dead trees and rotten stumps show where a pileated woodpecker has been at work. Often, only these holes, or perhaps the sound of distant chopping or the bird’s loud call, signal that a pileated woodpecker lives nearby. The birds are both uncommon and shy. Your best chance to discover one is to search in forests, especially in river bottoms. A few fortunate people have had a pileated woodpecker visit their suet feeders, but this is unusual. Missouri is home to seven species of woodpeckers.

Hear the call and drumming of a pileated woodpecker in the video below.

Pileated Power

  • The pileated woodpecker is most abundant in the large forests of the Ozarks, and least common in the northwest region.
  • This species plays an important role in decreasing populations of insects, many of which might seriously injure trees if left unchecked.
  • Pileated woodpeckers favor large forests; they excavate nest cavities in dead trees, so mature forests containing suitable nesting trees are important.
  • The nest cavities pileated woodpeckers create are used later by many other animals that can’t bore their own cavities.
  • They feed on insects, nuts, fruits and sap. In winter, ants constitute much of their food supply.

Learn more about the pileated woodpecker with MDC’s Field Guide.

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