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.

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

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    by Sue, Sat, 06 Feb 2021
  • I understand that the ducks' blood vessel arrangement in their feet is to provide the benefits of the counter-current heat exchanger mechanism; returning cold venous blood from the feet is warmed by the descending warm arterial blood, preventing excess heat loss by the feet and avoiding cold blood from chilling the body. This means that the feet are cold, not warm.
    by Frank Barch, Sat, 02 Jan 2021
  • I have the same situation. The feeder is attached to the middle of a large picture window that goes ceiling to floor w/ no ledge or sill for animals to climb or balance. Yet every morning all the sunflower seeds have been cracked open and hulls left. Any ideas what it is?
    by Liza Fox, Sun, 15 Nov 2020
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    by Nosferatu, Thu, 05 Nov 2020
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    by Ella Spencer Connolly, Thu, 27 Aug 2020