Oct 25, 2017 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, October 2015

Ask Birdsquatch: Head Bangers

Did you know? Scientists have estimated that the force of a woodpecker's bill striking wood may be as high as 1,000 times the force of gravity.
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Dear Birdsquatch:

I love woodpeckers and have managed to attract five woodpecker species to my backyard here in Kentucky. At my feeders they eat peanuts and suet and sunflower hearts. I know their natural food preferences are wood-boring insects, which they dig after with their chisellike bills. My question is this: How do they keep from knocking themselves out when they pound on a tree trunk repeatedly? Do they get concussions? Headaches?

—SIMONE, MUDLICK, KENTUCKY

Dear Simone,

I'm impressed with your knowledge of woodpecker natural history! When I go on vacation, would you like to take over this column for me? And where the heck is Mudlick, Kentucky? Can't say I'm familiar with it. Then again, I know that some of us prefer not to share our actual, precise whereabouts.

Woodpeckers are amazing creatures, uniquely adapted to be headbangers. In fact, The Woodpeckers would be a great name for a heavy-metal band. But I digress... To answer your questions about headaches and concussions: No, as far as we know, woodpeckers do not suffer from these problems in their normal foraging activities. If you or I banged our noggins on a tree trunk even once or twice, we'd feel dizzy, head-achy, and, frankly, stupid. But then again our brains are just sloshing around inside our skulls and any sudden, hard impact sends them splooshing against the internal skull surface.

Scientists have estimated that the force of a woodpecker's bill striking wood may be as high as 1,000 times the force of gravity. An impact that's just 10 percent of that would kill a human being, so how do woodpeckers survive such physical trauma?

Scans and careful examinations of woodpecker skulls have revealed that the brain of a woodpecker is surrounded by porous, spongelike bone, concentrated in the forehead and rear skull areas, which greatly reduces the effects of each impact of bill on wood. The spongelike material basically absorbs much of the force of impact.

Second, the tongue of most woodpeckers, which is very long to enable these birds to reach and retrieve grubs and ants and such from deep inside a cavity they've just chiseled out, wraps around the back of the skull and across the top, attaching to the forehead near the eyes. This acts as a kind of safety belt for the brain, bracing it for impact.

Third, woodpecker bills are built so that the lower mandible is slightly longer than the upper mandible. This means that the lower half of the bill receives more of the force of each blow, and this energy is channeled downward, away from the brain in the upper half of the head.

Finally, woodpeckers vary the angle of their blows, which distributes the impact across the entire bill, head, and neck. This information is not something that came solely from my brain. I had to look it up. And that takes some doing when you're a sasquatch.

I hope I've answered your question, Simone. Thanks for writing! And if you can, please put out a nice, big pile of sunflower hearts, and maybe a blueberry pie. I'll be passing through Kentucky soon, and I'll be sure to find Mudlick.



About Birdsquatch

Birdsquatch is WBB's tall, hairy, and slightly stinky columnist. He is a bigfoot who has watched birds all his life. His home range is unknown.

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