• Kevin Burrell

Pileated Woodpecker: Words That Build or Destroy


© Gregory Synstelien/Shutterstock

As the story goes, a newly-married couple on their honeymoon in Lake June, California were kept awake several nights by a noisy Acorn Woodpecker (see previous article) pounding on their roof. But the inconvenience became more troublesome one night when it began raining, and the couple discovered the bird had created several holes in the roof. The man wanted the bird executed on the spot, but his bride suggested instead that he make a cartoon about it. The man was, after all, Walter Lantz, of Walter Lantz Productions, the principal animation supplier for Universal Studios. Walter made the cartoon, his wife Gracie lent the voice, and Woody Woodpecker was born.

The origin story may have involved an Acorn Woodpecker, but the inspiration for Woody’s appearance—and especially his famous laugh—was the king of all woodpeckers, the Pileated. By far the largest woodpecker in North America, the Pileated is simply one of the grandest forest birds on the continent, with its striking black-and-white facial stripes and red-mohawk crest. It dwarfs the other woodpeckers in the area with a body that’s more the size of a slim crow. In short, a Pileated Woodpecker isn’t hard to identify—at least if you can get a visual on it. They’re simply brilliant.

But I’ll admit that some other woodpecker species also have a laughter-like whinny, notably the Northern Flicker, and when I hear a call far in the distance, sometimes I’m not positive in my birding-by-ear identification. There are ways to tell the difference, like modulation and duration, but I’ll give you, good reader, my most reliable differentiating marker.

A Pileated Woodpecker is So. Freakishly. Loud.

This is my last installment in a series about woodpeckers, taking their extraordinary pounding beaks as metaphors for the power of words and the biblical call to “tame the tongue” (James 3:8). We’ve learned from the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker about verbal traps and wounds, and from the Acorn Woodpecker about gathering the right words. The Pileated teaches us another profound life lesson, namely this: You can quickly gain the upper hand in a conversation if you’re really, really loud about it.

This is not a good thing.

In the forest, a powerful penetrating call is a thing of wonder. Just this morning (as I write this), hiking near the Blue Ridge Parkway, I had a Pileated perch directly above me and let it rip. It was absolutely exhilarating (after the initial shock). But for us humans, in homes and conference rooms and Twitter threads, using our words to overpower others is anything but inspiring. I’m not referring to decibel levels, although yelling at people is generally a terrible idea, and if that’s your thing, please seek help immediately (I say this earnestly: for your own sake and that of those around you, you simply must learn a better way). But we can overpower others by our sheer quantity of words too. We will look far less bully-ish—even socially proper—while being just as manipulative.


A pair of pileated woodpeckers in a tree
A Pileated Pair © Patty Masten, used by permission

I remember hearing Pastor Joe Novenson describe how his pastoral strengths with words could be used to damage others. “I make a living from speaking and developing words and arguments. Can you imagine what it’s like to be married to me?” He said that too often his wife will be undeniably correct in her opinion, and yet still somehow “lose” the argument, because her husband used his verbal adeptness to somehow manipulate his way to a win.

This is personally convicting. In my own life, I’ve discovered that a “way with words” can mask an inability to listen well, or a refusal to admit defeat. The former reared its head in ugly ways in my earlier years; I often engaged in conversation with a one-sided shallowness that was only thinking about what I would say next, rather than truly listening to the actual words of others. The latter has reared its head more recently (or at least my discovery of it has); I have a no-doubt-annoying tactic of repeating my opinion in slightly different words when I don’t feel I’m being heard. I have loads of synonyms and metaphors and explanations stored up, and I can do this all day. I’m confident you’ll most certainly agree with my perspective eventually, if I can just describe it well enough, refusing to admit the possibility that my idea doesn’t bear repeating because, well, it’s a bad idea. Inconceivable.

So a piercingly loud bird voice is an apt reminder not to plow through people with our sheer excess of words. That unlovingly-strident voice can also take the form of a snippy tone, a penchant for interruption, an unwillingness to let others speak, or an argumentative spirit. Ask yourself where you might be silencing people by your louder voice. Better yet, ask others.

O Give Me a Home


But the Pileated Woodpecker has a better, more positive word-related lesson for us as well. They’re known not only for their grandiose voices but their grandiose nests. A Pileated can excavate a tree branch so deeply that it breaks in half. Assuming they stop short of total destruction, their finished hole will be a unique vertically-oriented rectangle up to two feet long. When eventually abandoned, these impressive holes are large enough to make great rental properties for other birds like owls and wood ducks, or mammals like bats and pine martens. Pileateds are committed to their mate till death do us part, working together to make and defend the homestead. The energy their beak expends will result in a safe, stable, and spacious home—both for them and for those who come after them.

And perhaps this is the best use of a beak: shaping the right environment for others. How can the way we use our tongue create a place where others dwell safely? James 3 reminds us that a small bit turns the horse and a small rudder turns the ship. Where do you want your words to take people? What destination does your tongue—and the heart behind it—guide others towards? It’s a key question in parenting, as we peck away and carve out a nest. The reality is that even well-meaning Christian parents can raise legalist kids, conditioned to believe that acceptance is contingent upon good behavior—the antithesis of the gospel. Is the dominant theme of our words to our kids best summarized as “Be good” or as “Live loved”? What we say (and more often how we say it and live it out) can either communicate “We love you if…” or “We love you even when…” Which one better represents the voice of Jesus?


Pileated Woodpecker and a nest of three chicks
© Mike Norkum/Shutterstock

Just like the woodpecker, your mouth builds an environment. If we believe that grace changes everything, then certainly the safest home we can build is one that is gospel-shaped. I do not mean only a home that knows the gospel, that believes the gospel, or even that talks about the gospel, but a home that is molded and shaped by the convictions of grace. It’s a home that embodies, “We’re not good enough but Jesus is.” It carries the theme, “We’re not surprised when we sin, but when we fail, we know where to go.” Apologies flow freely, with regular demonstrations of “This is why I need Jesus.” What the people in this nest do is set within the joyous context of what Jesus has already done.

I’ve drastically oversimplified gospel parenting, I know. But this image goes well beyond the home; your work environment, your college dorm, or your retirement villa’s community room are all shaped by the words and tones of the people in them. The environment in which God has placed you may be defined by complaining, gossiping, criticizing, coarseness, exclusivity, or self-promoting. But you, Christian, are the aroma of Christ. Your words can give life. Think of your words as peck-by-peck chipping away a safe space in which others can dwell. You bring affirmation and compassion, kindness and a listening ear, and the Lord uses you to build a safe shelter in the storm. Those around you may not even realize they need this safe space yet. But when the need presents itself, people will go to you for the good words, the best words, and ultimately for the Word, the one who became flesh and made his nest among us (John 1:14).