Spinning tales about woodpeckers


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Researchers have studied woodpeckers to improve the safety of helmets.

photo by Brett Pigon

Woodpeckers are commonly colored black, white, red and yellow. Males often flaunt more prominent red, sometimes yellow, head markings. Pairs tend to appear similar and are monogamous. The undulating flight pattern usually displays interspersed flapping and gliding with folded wings against the body instead of extended like many birds. Depending on species, some live to be 11 years old, larger species as long as 30 years. 

Drumming (special tapping sounds) attracts mates and establishes territories. Since woodpeckers chirp and chatter but do not sing, they drum on resonant objects such as hollow trees or even downspouts, trash cans and stop signs.

Certainly, these arboreal birds prefer wooded habitats. Nests are shielded cavities, typically excavated in dead trees (snags) or trees with hollowed or softened centers (heartrot). Utility poles or roof shingles also accommodate nests. Desert species drill holes in tall cacti. Actually, it takes about a month for nest construction. At times, bold starlings overtake woodpecker holes.

Obviously, woodpeckers are relentless percussionists. A single woodpecker pounds possibly 20 times per second, 12,000 taps per day, with its chisel-like beak. 

Therefore, the evolutionary design of the woodpecker avoids concussions. The reinforced skull is a shock absorber; the hyoid bone apparatus rigidly supports the tongue and wraps around the skull — a safety harness; limited space protectively restricts brain movement; the beak has an overbite which diverts impact stress; powerful neck muscles and a flexible spine are invaluable. Indeed, research for helmets is influenced by the woodpecker.

Behavioral factors also prevent brain damage: glancing blows rather than direct hits; releasing mostly linear pecks lessen head twisting; short-burst hammering allows the brain to cool. 

Moreover, bristles and filters protect nostrils from debris. A membrane (a translucent third eyelid) blocks particles and restrains the eyes from popping out of the sockets.

Specially adapted clawed feet with short legs and a stiff, spiked tail anchor the bird while climbing or hammering. Basically, feet and tail form a tripod for balance.

Amazing is the tongue which is longer than the bill, sometimes sticky, barbed, and with a hard, pointed tip. It may extend past 4 inches. Length facilitates foraging in live or rotten trees, bark crevices, or house shingles. Savored are beetles and their grubs (larvae) and other insects for the omnivorous woodpecker. However, tongues vary with foraging needs. The yellow-bellied sapsucker has a relatively short, brush-like tongue to lap the sap from live trees; the hummingbird usually lingers near the sapsucker, waiting for leftovers. 

Besides the sapsucker, meet two more of Florida’s impressive woodpeckers. The downy woodpecker is the smallest in North America at around 6 to 7 inches; it flattens itself against a tree to deter predators. The pileated woodpecker is nearly crow size and mainly black with a prominent red crest. It resembles and sounds like Woody Woodpecker, but the acorn woodpecker was the cartoon inspiration. 

Indeed, woodpeckers are exquisite in function and appearance. However, the persistent rat-a-tat-tat of a determined woodpecker feeding possibly on termites or nesting on one’s residence is exasperating. Distantly placing a dead stump or supplying a bird house might relocate this creature. 

Nevertheless, woodpeckers are crucial in controlling insects to prevent mass infestation of trees.