Nov 25, 2020 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, December 2020

Four cool things about woodpeckers

The next time you see a woodpecker on a tree or at a birdfeeder, grab your binocular for a closer look and admire the cool anatomy of a unique group of birds. Red-headed woodpecker by Shutterstock.
Share:

What makes a woodpecker a woodpecker? Certainly their behavior is an identifying characteristic: Most forage for insects on the trunks and branches of trees, and drill holes to get to prey or sap within; they drum with their bill; and they nest and roost in cavities they have excavated. But woodpeckers also have unique anatomical adaptations to their ecological niche.

1. Their feet: Most woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet, consisting of four toes arranged in an X pattern. That arrangement is ideal for grasping limbs and trunks of trees, and allows them to walk vertically up trees, and to cling tightly while they excavate. However, two of North America's 22 woodpecker species have two toes front and one rear; they are the blackbacked woodpecker and the American three-toed woodpecker.

Pileated woodpecker photo by Shutterstock.

2. Their tails: Woodpecker tail feathers are stiff, providing tripod-like support while the bird climbs and hammers on tree trunks.

Pileated woodpecker photo by M. Roen.

3. Their tongues: Woodpecker tongues are long—a redbellied woodpecker's tongue is three times as long as its bill! Its tip is barbed. Those features are useful for probing and foraging deep inside holes in trees. The base of the tongue is at the top of the bill. On the outside of the skull, it winds up between the eyes and over the forehead, divides and extends over the back of the bird's head, circles around the jaw, and comes together at the back of the mouth. Thus, it serves as padding for the brain as the bird excavates.

Pileated woodpecker photo by B. Goddard.

4. Their nostrils: Woodpeckers have bristly feathers over their nostrils to prevent inhalation of wood particles as they excavate.

Downy woodpecker photo by Shutterstock.

The next time you see a woodpecker on a tree or at a birdfeeder, grab your binocular for a closer look and admire the cool anatomy of a unique group of birds



What do you think? Tell us!

comments powered by Disqus

New On This Site

The Latest Comments

  • Thank you for sharing some things to take into consideration when it comes to backyard renovation, this is very timely as I'm planning to turn a portion of my backyard into some sort of patio while maintaining a nice open lawn area as well. I saw some outdoor furniture and outdoor decor on this website and after reading this article, I checked them out again and I found more stuff that I would love to buy for my new patio.
    by Eleonor Baker, Thu, 15 Apr 2021
  • Something is wrong with the Goldfinches in April 2021. I had to stop putting seed in our feeder because the birds seem to have a hard time flying. That attracts our cats, and I do not want to feed the cats. I have actually picked up two birds that seemed to be struggling to fly and tossed one into the air and another on a large pile of leaves. They took off, but they are very lethargic.
    by Beasleyhillman, Sat, 03 Apr 2021
  • How does one attract Calif Scrub Jays?? Due to neighbors outdoor cats most of birds are gone except a fee hummingbirds.
    by Dee Opde, Sun, 21 Mar 2021
  • You are talking about "black oil sunflower seeds" but showing regular striped sunflower seeds. There is a BIG difference! There is MUCH less waste with the black oil seeds. Plus they are easier for small birds to eat. They are both shown here: https://www.horsefeedblog.c...
    by Carolyn King, Sat, 20 Mar 2021
  • How long do other seeds stay fresk? Sunflower seeds? Millet? Safflower?
    by Sue, Sat, 06 Feb 2021