The Pileated Woodpecker inspired one of my favorite childhood cartoon characters, Woody Woodpecker. Not only could I see examples of those majestic birds daily in the woods along the ranch’s creek as I walked to and from the bus stop on State Road 62, but I also often saw one or more of the other common woodpecker species flitting about in the shadows of the oaks and pines:  the Downy, Hairy, Northern Flicker, Pileated, Red-Headed, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.




From “Cranes,” the 23rd chapter of Growing Up Floridian:


My interest in “birding” or birdwatching began at age six when my maternal grandmother made her first visit to the ranch in Manatee County from her Springfield, Massachusetts home to see her daughter and grandkids. As she and I walked along my favorite haunt, the ranch’s dark, lazy creek, a flash of black, white, and tantalizing red cast a flickering shadow amongst the water oaks and lit at the base of a huge pine tree. Gram grabbed my shoulder, squeezed, and pointed silently at the crimson crested head of a crow-sized bird who confidently hopped about the tree trunk in an upward spiral.

“That’s a pileated woodpecker,” she whispered.

“I see them all the time, but I never knew what to call them. So, I just call them big hammers. Smaller birds that act the same I call little hammers. There are four of five different ones.”

Two weeks after Gram returned to New England, she sent my first copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds, which allowed me to attach accurate names to many more soaring, darting, flitting shadows that populated my rural boyhood wanderings. The pileated, red-bellied, red-headed, hairy, and downy woodpeckers, described in great detail and compared with one another in the text, became more tangible and ordered in my mind.