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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:

9 comments to The Woody Woodpecker Controversy

  • tai haku

    That is hilarious. Do we think Julie is gonna go back on NPR again in light of the new IBWO evidence?

  • Abe

    I have heard about and read about and seen movies about these birds but none are here where I live. I assume they are native to your area.

    All of the birds I photograph must fly into my tiny, city, backyard to be photographed. In 47 years I have collected thousands of pictures but the last two or three years have been the most productive. It has taken a long time to develop my yard into a kind of oasis for wildlife. LOL

    I really like your blog and will subscribe to it.

    I just brought my Coopers Hawk blog back. Blogger had saved the name for me. I have hundreds of photos yet to publish. If you are interested in hawks you are welcome to have a look.

  • Julie Zickefoose

    Hey Bidchick, hope the Kazakhs are treating you well.

    Alvaro, Looney Toons scholar that he is, told me about the Campephilus principalis episode of Woody Woodpecker before I wrote the piece, but, given that animators are quite fast and loose with their biology, it doesn’t really change the fact that Woody was originally modeled on the acorn woodpecker–Kimball and I agreed on that. Not sure where Alvaro stands on it. He may pop up with his opinion. Woody had been in existence for many years, going through all kinds of morphological changes, before that episode. If you look at the old ones, his crest is all slicked back and he has these huge heavy legs–almost unrecognizable from the version we all are more familiar with, with the recurved crest (diagnostic! What else could it be?). But you have to love it!

  • NCmountainwoman

    I just love this controversy. All these people concerned with the identity of a cartoon bird! And I can’t identify all the REAL birds in my area.

    Great photographs of the Acorn Woodpecker.

  • Laura

    The acorn woodpeckers at my mom’s house in Sonoma County, CA eventually made so many holes in a phone line pole that the phone company had to come out and replace it. I’ll bet the woodpeckers were thrilled that they now had a brand new wooden pole to peck up! (The old one was just left lying on the ground).

  • cyberthrush

    fascinating and funny stuff… I always knew I loved that cartoon for some reason ;-) (…and perhaps a lifelong obsession finally explained).

  • wildwose

    This is hilarious. I heard that NPR story and thought about you! And then I remember thinking…well that’s silly, Woody is obviously physically modeled on a Pilated, (we have a awesome Pilated living in the woods across from us, I was recently very pleased to discover exactly the tree that he had excavated for a nesting cavity!) even if the original inspiration was an acorn woodpecker. (which I am very glad DON’T live in my area! Our home is timber framed and wood clad! Oh, no, CA can keep’em!) However, this new evidence is wonderful! And I am pleased to know that the evidence of the continued existence of the Ivory Billed is true. It will live on in hearts of children if no where else.

    On a somewhat related note. I have learned he depths of my bird passion. The following event recently actually occurred with me driving just up the road from our house, and I am a little chagrined to admit it.

    Leah, my wife, “Oh, there is the is pilated!”

    Me, “Really, where?”….Bang! “#$@! did I just hit the guard rail?!?!?”

    The van wasn’t damaged, I was going less than 20 MPH and only tapped it with the bumper. There where actually two teen boys in the van, mine and a friend, who are on their learner’s permits. The experience was a learning one for them.

    Lesson: Do not bird and drive…

  • Moe

    What a great story! Thanks for sharing.

  • Ark Lady

    LMAO…just goes to show you how far passion can take you.

    Wish I knew you where out here since I could have invited you just a short trip North to the mountains.

    I have a couple of Acorn Woodpeckers (along with two species of Flickers and a White Headed Woodpecker) that hang out in my yard.

    Currently they are busy working on the bark beetles that have hit three of my trees.

    We have a number a caching trees throughout the area and are in part of the Pacific Flyway where an amazing amount of birds pass through.

    Keep it in mind the next time you are out this way. Would love to have a Birds & Beers event.