MICHELE NORRIS, host:
On March 2nd, we aired a story about a California community that was fighting acorn woodpeckers, protected species that makes lots of holes in house siding. In that story, we said that the popular cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker, was modeled on the acorn woodpecker. A couple of listeners disagreed. And to find out the truth, we asked our bird commentator, Julie Zickefoose. Well, Julie got it wrong in a recent letter segment, and here's her mea culpa.
JULIE ZICKEFOOSE: Bad calls are part of bird watching. Any birdwatcher can tell you that. Mostly, we are kind to each other when a bad call is made, although I did bird briefly with a guy named Dennis who would emit a startling, eh, like the buzzer on Jeopardy, if in your excitement, you got a titmouse confused with a gnatcatcher.
Thankfully, I now go birding with people who are content to gently correct me or snicker quietly to themselves. When Melissa Block emailed me to find out just what Woody Woodpecker was supposed to be, I was taking a break from birding, sitting on a veranda in verdant lush Honduras, my laptop on my knees and a half-bottle of red wine by my side. I'm just saying.
Wasn't it obvious with his shaggy crest, long beak and wild laugh that Woody was supposed to be a pileated woodpecker? I emailed right back, Woody is modeled on the pileated woodpecker, right down to that wild laugh. Well, not so fast, Ms. Zickefoose. All over the Internet, there are listservs discussing weighty matters like how to identify immature crossbills and just how the wing feather of a short-billed dowitcher differs from that of a long-billed dowitcher.
There are people who really, really care about this stuff, and I'm grateful for them. They write the books I use in the field. I am a quick-and-dirty kind of birdwatcher, and here's a little secret: I don't really care about dowitcher feather markings.
One of those people who do care is an eminent ornithologist named Kimball Garrett, and when he and some other ornithologists heard Melissa Block relay my ill-considered and perhaps even slightly boozy statement that Woody is based on a pileated woodpecker, they started losing feathers and hopping up and down and shooting messages on the Bird ID Frontiers listserv.
Several of them happened to know the truth and had discussed it at length, in between identifying puzzling shorebirds and curating museum collections and writing books and stuff like that.
It turns out that Walter Lantz, the animator who created Woody Woodpecker, had personally given ornithologist Kimball Garrett a copy of his biography. And in that book it says that Walter and his wife, Grace, while honeymooning in a California cabin, were amused by an acorn woodpecker who was poking nuts under the roof shingles.
They liked the little raucous scream the bird emitted. Grace said to Walter, why don't you make him into a character? We all know that animators are a bit fast and loose with their biology, and I'm not trying to excuse myself here, but let's recall the Latin names for the Road Runner, Tastyus supersonicus and Wile E. Coyote, Eatibus anythingus.
So I think, even when you factor in the wine, that the fact that Woody looks a lot like a pileated woodpecker and nothing at all like an acorn woodpecker is, at the very least, misleading. And the fact that eminent ornithologists spend at least some of their time getting all head up about the proper identification of zany animated characters, well, that just makes me laugh like a cartoon woodpecker.
(Soundbite of Woody Woodpecker laughter)
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified People (Singers): (Singing) That's the Woody Woodpecker song.
NORRIS: Julie Zickefoose lives in Ohio.
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