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Woody Woodpecker

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Do you remember that outrageous cartoon woodpecker named Woody? With his pointy red topknot, his insane cackle, and his ability to buzzsaw through a tree in three seconds? Would you believe that Woody’s exploits were only half cartoon? The other half was documentary.

Woody’s real-life model was the piliated woodpecker, which still inhabits the narrow strip of mature growth forests along the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Even though the real woodies are as large as house cats, with wingspans of 30 inches, as raucous as the cartoon, and arrayed in show-off black white and red, few humans ever see them. Piliated woodpeckers need territories of up to 150 acres by themselves. They don’t migrate, spending the winter deep inside trees.

It’s close-up that the real woodpecker outshines his cartoon shadow. Piliated woodpeckers use their strong beaks to hunt deep inside decaying oakwood for carpenter ants. Their acute hearing allows them to hear the ants chewing in the wood. They can also smell the formic acid given off by ants and feel the ant vibrations. Once they locate ants, it’s no content.

Every part of the piliated woodpecker is made for the job. Supporting itself on a tree by stiff tail feathers and with huge neck muscles and a brain protected against jarring by air sacks, the woodpecker’s beak makes short work of the wood. Now, it’s the tongue’s turn to work—a tongue whose root goes over the top of the head and down the forehead to anchor at the base of the beak. The tongue is round, like a worm, as long as a human’s and sticky all over. A bone sticks out the tip like a bayonet. Barbs along the side prevent grubs from slipping off. The tongue can reach out two inches beyond the beak and turn corners to chase ants escaping through tunnels.

Like most of you, I have never seen one of our piliated woodpeckers. I’ve had to make do with the cartoon Woody. But I’m not sorry—it’s comforting to know that somewhere along Rock Island, there is hard work going on without any supervision at all.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.