Woodpecker in action

[2021 is upon us and let us all hope it will be better than 2020. Thankyou for reading my blog, and I hope it brings a small sense of the vastness of nature into your circumscribed world.]

Have you ever watched a woodpecker feeding? This is a Hairy Woodpecker, checking for danger before starting his onslaught:

He braces himself, using his tail to help:

And then he starts to hammer away. This video was taken on a different occasion in the same corner of my woods, so it may be the same woodpecker:

He goes at it so hard that his head blurs on camera, and you actually see the wood chips on his white breast:

He is looking for beetles, ants or grubs, and once he has made a suitable hole he sticks his beak and his very long tongue deep into the (probably hollow) tree:

And if he has done a good job, he is rewarded with a juicy grub:

Down it goes:

Why doesn’t he get concussion, or at least a headache? Turns out there are several adaptations that help, detailed in an endnote below.* One of the cleverest ones is a highly specialized hyoid bone (in humans, it is a teensy little bone at the base of the tongue.) In woodpeckers, it is vastly elongated, and it splits in two, goes on each side of the spine, winds around the back of the head and in through the right nostril to form a sort of sling affair, acting as a safety belt. Here is a picture:

It has even been suggested that this would make a good model for a prototype crash helmet (May et al 1976). The biomechanics of how woodpeckers survive bashing away at up to 12,000 strikes a day at a speed of around 7 meters/sec have been studied in great detail:

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0026490

* Wikipedia gives this summary of their adaptations: “To prevent brain damage  from the rapid and repeated powerful impacts, woodpeckers have a number of physical features which protect the brain. These include a relatively small and smooth brain, narrow subdural space, little cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) surrounding it to prevent it from moving back and forth inside the skull during pecking, the orientation of the brain within the skull (which maximises the contact area between the brain and the skull) and the short duration of contact. The skull consists of strong but compressible sponge-like bone which is most concentrated in the forehead and the back of the skull.”

5 thoughts on “Woodpecker in action”

  1. Close-up of a grub-meal is great. We have Downies here all day, loving the beef suet & seed & trim on the corner of our house…eliciting me banging on the wall. Did see a Hairy Woodpecker last week…also on the suet.

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  2. They use a range of techniques, some visual (peering and pecking and scanning) and some auditory (percussion, to test for hollow areas; perhaps listening for the sounds of the munching insects inside). Then they drill in, and get their quarry.

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