In 1979 Walter Lantz was given a special Academy Award “for bringing joy and laughter to every part of the world” especially via his Woody Woodpecker cartoons. Lantz shared with the audience that on his honeymoon with Gracie Stafford in 1941, a woodpecker kept pounding on the roof of their cabin. The bird was relentlessly drilling little holes and stuffing acorns in them.
Gracie suggested using that aural inspiration as a cartoon character, and although Lantz was skeptical he went ahead with her suggestion. The rest, as they say, is history.
However the bird that actually inspired Lantz’ drawing of Woody was most certainly NOT an acorn woodpecker, which was clearly the species keeping the newly married couple amused.
Woody is most likely a Pileated woodpecker or at least a cartoonist version of one. There is only one woodpecker that bears that prominent crest or pileus where the word pileated comes from. That is assuming that the ivory-billed woodpecker is indeed extinct. Not seen since the 1940s, ornithologists got real excited several years ago with reports of one in Arkansas; this sighting proved unfounded. A pileus was a felt conical hat worn by ancient Greeks. Both Woody and the pileated have a prominent red crests whereas the acorn woodpecker does not.
Pileateds are the biggest woodpeckers in North America and make hefty rectangular shaped cavities in large trees. Both the male and female drum very loudly on hollow trees during breeding season. They prefer old growth forests or secondary growth as long as there are some standing large trees. Annadel State Park in Sonoma, Five Brooks Pond in west Marin and the Santa Cruz Mountains are excellent places to see these magnificent birds which range across all of North America.