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Are There Real Woody Woodpeckers Flying Around Chicago? You Bet There Are

By Justin Breen | October 17, 2016 5:55am | Updated on October 21, 2016 10:30am
 Pileated woodpeckers, the possible inspiration for Woody Woodpecker, are in Chicago but hard to find.
Pileated woodpecker
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CHICAGO — If you're lucky, you might see a Woody Woodpecker impersonator flying around Chicago or pecking a city tree.

Pileated woodpeckers are city residents, hard to find but still within city limits. The woodpeckers, who are possibly the inspiration behind the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker, can be found in certain segments of Chicago, according to Chris Anchor, the Cook County Forest Preserves’ senior wildlife biologist.

"People can see them along portions of the North Branch of the Chicago River that extends into the city, as well as at Wooded Island in Jackson Park," Anchor said. "Their habitat preference is heavy woods."

Anchor said the birds have been nesting in Cook County since 1991.

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John Bates, associate curator for birds at the Field Museum, said sightings are extremely rare but the species is slowly increasing in numbers in the region. He noted breeding pairs in the Palos Hills region in southern Cook County and in neighboring DuPage County, plus birds that have been seen in the forest preserve districts of northwestern Cook County.

"They are a species that needs big stands of older trees for food and nest sites," Bates said.

Anchor said the pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpecker species in North America. The bird is nearly the size of a crow, and is black with white stripes down the neck and a flaming-red crest, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

There's a controversy whether pileated woodpeckers or the smaller, stouter acorn woodpeckers are the inspiration behind Woody Woodpecker, who first appeared on Nov. 25, 1940.

The cartoon's creator, Walter Lantz, supposedly saw an acorn woodpecker in California, and his wife suggested he make the bird into a cartoon character, according to NPR. But Woody looks more like a lengthier pileated woodpecker and the cartoon character's laugh more closely matches a pileated woodpecker's sound, which, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, resembles a "high, clear, series of piping calls that lasts several seconds."

Acorn woodpeckers, which live in the western United States and Mexico, aren't found anywhere near Chicago.

Check out a pileated woodpecker doing his thing:

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