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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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018