The Woody Woodpecker Controversy

While at the San Diego Bird Festival, I got to enjoy one of my favorite bird species--the acorn woodpecker (this is a female above, she's just as handsome as the male). I love this species, the first time I ever saw one was years ago in San Francisco. They look like they are about to tell you joke at any moment. Actually, they look like Groucho Marx to me. I think she needs a cigar and say things like, "From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it."

This species lives in family groups and one of the interesting this is that the group will select one tree for food storage. This tree is called a granary tree. They drill a hole and put an acorn into that hole.

Actually, they drill LOTS of holes. One granary tree may have up to 50,000 holes in it. The woodpeckers fill the tree in the autumn when acorns or plentiful and feed off of their cache through the winter. The tree we saw during the festival was very empty since it's practically spring in San Diego. But acorn woodpeckers may not be fun for everybody, especially if they choose a house as their granary tree.

While I was enjoying the great birds at San Diego, a whole woodpecker discussion started on a hardcore birding listserv called ID Frontiers. This is not the type of listserv where you email a blurry photo of a house sparrow and ask what it is. This is the type of listserv where you discuss gulls for days on end and the differences in their primary projection and whether or not the gull in question is just an aberrant herring gull or some hybrid no one has ever imagined before.

Well, a more light hearted discussion start came up: What species is Woody Woodpecker? As a kid, I always thought he was an ivory-billed woodpecker. Okay, the ivory-bill isn't blue and Woody's white patches don't match up, but you can't argue with Woody's size, his crest and his light colored bill. When I worked at a wild bird store and we had to listen to bird identification CDs all day, I heard an acorn woodpecker call and it gave the "Ha ha ha HAAA ha" call. I realized that sounded a little familiar. Here's an example that you can hear over at Xeno Canto. Can you kind of hear it the laugh sound. From then on I figured that Woody was a hybrid between an acorn and an ivory-billed woodpecker.

Well, I guess NPR's "All Things Considered" program referenced Woody Woodpecker in a story recently about acorn woodpeckers damaging houses in California and said that acorn woodpeckers were the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker. My favorite blogger and frequent contributor to All Things Considered, Julie Zickefoose sent a note that Woody was in fact a pileated woodpecker.

ID Frontiers went nuts over this.

Kimball L. Garrett, the Ornithology Collections Manager of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County started it by stating that Walter Lantz (the creator of Woody Woodpecker) personally gave him a copy of his biography published in 1985 and that it reads that Woody Woodpecker was inspired by acorn woodpeckers seen during his honeymoon in 1940. Apparently, Lantz's new bride suggested he should turn the woodpeckers into a character.

So, then Julie had to give an on air mia culpa, which you can listen to or read here. So, case closed, Woody is an acorn woodpecker, you heard it on NPR. Right?

But not so fast. Leave it to the wonderous Alvaro Jaramillo (the guy who can truly make watching and identifying gulls seem like fun) to find the video/photographic proof as to Woody's identity--proof so dramatic that David Luneau would weep. Alvaro said, "There is a Woody Woodpecker episode where someone is trying to hunt down “Campephilus principalis” and Woody looks him up in a book, and there he finds a picture of himself. I remember seeing that when I was a kid."

And just to go that extra mile, Alvaro found the proof. "Episode is from 1964, called “Dumb like a Fox.” Here is the magic screen capture. The story is that the museum will pay $25 for one Campephilus principalis."

And if you're not down with your latin names, Campephilus principalis is also known as ivory-billed woodpecker.

So, there you have it. Proof of Woody Woodpecker's ID and proof that even the most hardcore birders can have a sense of humor. And now I leave with a video of a male acorn woodpecker looking for food: