Heinz Sielmann: Who is the filmmaker and why did he earn the nickname ‘Mr Woodpecker’?

From Tom Barnes, published at Sat Jun 02 2018

A Google Doodle pays tribute to the renowned biologist and filmmaker Heinz Sielmann, on what would have been his 101st birthday.

Despite creating a wide range of wildlife documentaries over his life, Sielmann gained the nickname “Mr Woodpecker” after the release of one of his most best-loved films, Carpenters of the Forest, in 1954.

Detailing the life of the bird, it featured then-groundbreaking footage from inside its nests and became hugely popular in Britain after it was broadcast on the BBC.

That the film, known as The Woodpecker on UK broadcasts, remains his most famous work among a career littered with award-winning movies pays testament to its ability to capture the imaginations of audiences at the time.

Born in in Rheydt, Germany, in 1917, Sielmann moved to East Prussia at an early age where his father opened a business selling electrical and building supplies.

His fascination with wildlife began as a child, often waking up early in order to watch birds before school.

At the age of 17, he received his first camera and made his first steps into the world of wildlife photography.

Wildlife filmmaker Heinz Sielmann is the subject of today's Google Doodle


East Prussia became the setting for his first nature film in 1938, a silent movie on birdlife in the province.

However, the young Sielmann’s career was interrupted the following year by the outbreak of the Second World War.

He was initially stationed in occupied Poland as an instructor at a radio communications training unit for the Luftwaffe, spending time as a prisoner of war in Cairo and London.

After the war, he began his critically-acclaimed work for the Educational Film Institute of the Federal Republic of Germany.

It was during this time he started filming Carpenters of the Forest, capturing the elusive woodpecker in a degree of depth that had not been seen before.

Sielmann placed cameras inside woodpecker nests and in doing so was able to film intimate moments between parents and offspring, a move that helped the documentary become a global hit.

“Of all the animals that I have worked with, the woodpeckers are my favourites,” Sielmann would later write, “because I was able to find out many new facts about the biology of these birds.”

In the late 1950s, he released his first feature film, Les Seigneurs de la Forêt, or Lords of the Forest, which was commissioned by the King of Belgium and filmed in the then-Belgian Congo.

The film was notable for being one of the first to capture the social nature of gorillas in their natural habitat. It won first place at the Moscow Film Festival and quickly became one of his most revered works, being translated into 26 languages including an English version narrated by Orson Welles.

In 1971 he photographed for the Academy Award winning film The Hellstrom Chronicle, along with Walon Green, about the threat that insects collectively pose to humans and the struggle between the two.

In 1994, he founded the Heinz Sielmann Stiftung, a foundation that has successfully reintroduced otters and beavers into the wild in Germany.

He died surrounded by his family in Munich in 2006.