Woodpecker "Log-gods" in the Piney Woods

By Jay Huner
Journal Correspondent

Pileated Woodpecker photograph by Jim Johnson.
Photograph, Lecompte LA
(This bird was the model for the popular "Woody Woodpecker," famous in movie and TV cartoons for many years)
Anyone associated with the Piney Woods has certainly encountered Log-gods, also called Indian Hen, Woodchuck, or Cock-of-the-Woods. These are common names for the Pileated Woodpecker, our largest "common" woodpecker. The species' large size and red-crested head give it a close resemblance to the ultra rare Ivory-billed Woodpecker. In fact, almost all reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers prove to be mistaken observations of Pileated Woodpeckers.

Pileated Woodpeckers are almost as large as a crow and are pretty conspicuous and noisy. The high pitched rattling Kee, Kee, Kee, Kee call and loud drumming were so distinct to cartoonist Walter Lantz that he modeled Woody Woodpecker after the Pileated Woodpecker.

Mr. Lantz was on his honeymoon in California in the 1930s when he met Woody's inspiration. So, Pileated Woodpeckers are not restricted to the South's Piney W.woods region. In fact, they are found throughout the forests of eastern North America and occur across the Canadian Provinces and southward along the Pacific Coast into California.

Woody Woodpecker has a crested red head and blue body. The Pileated Woodpecker, however, is basically black. Males have a distinct red crest from bill to nape of the neck. In females, the red crest begins farther back on the head. A white line starts at the bill and runs across the cheek and down the neck. Males have red mustache stripes but females lack them. There is some white on the back of the wings but when birds open their wings, large, bright white linings are revealed under the wings.

In contrast, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has extensive white patches on the trailing edges of the tops of its wings plus extensive white coloration under the wings including the leading and trailing edges on the bottoms of the wings. Look for white on the back of folded wings! If you see such a woodpecker, do your best to document it with pictures and notify conservation agencies.

Pileated Woodpeckers are not shy and set up house-keeping in suburban areas as long as woodlots provide a place for them to feed and excavate their nests. They also think nothing about making cavities in wooden utility poles, much to the frustration of electric companies.

The Pileated Woodpecker's habit of loud drumming - rapid pecking, 14-17 beats per second - on sonorous objects including trees, poles, and sides of buildings can be very annoying to anyone nearby as Walter Lantz learned. The woodpeckers are oblivious to humans with the reason for the drumming being the biological need to establish territories for breeding purposes.

Carpenter ants are the favorite food of Pileated Woodpeckers. They scale bark from trees and make cavities to get to the ants' galleries collecting ants with their long tongues. They also eat other insects favoring the grubs of wood boring beetles. As with other woodpeckers, they readily consume fruit and nuts in season.

Pileated Woodpeckers excavate new nesting cavities each spring. Both parents incubate the 4-6 eggs that hatch in several weeks. The young birds grow fast and are ready to leave the nests after 3-4 weeks as free flying fledglings. The young woodpeckers, however, depend on their parents for several months before leaving them in the fall. Non-breeding Pileated Woodpeckers roost individually in cavities in their home range.

So, enjoy Woody Woodpecker in our Piney Woods or on a television screen!

Jay Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Jay V. Hickory Hill Drive
318 793-5529
Boyce, LA 71409