Oct 12, 2016 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, October 2016

Where Does a Woodpecker Store Its Long Tongue?

A woodpecker's tongue can extend two inches beyond the tip of its bill. This helps it find and nab insects hiding deep inside crevices in trees.
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The gilded flicker has a tongue that extends almost two inches beyond the tip of its bill. Where does its long tongue go when it is retracted? Does it roll up in the back of its mouth? No. Believe it or not, the flicker’s long tongue is retracted into a sheath that wraps around the back and top of its skull, under the skin, and is attached in the right nostril. It turns out the hummingbirds store their long tongues in the same way.

Flickers have brushlike barbs on the tips of their tongues that, when lathered with saliva, can capture insects and draw them directly into their mouths. Unlike most woodpeckers, flickers often forage for ants on the ground, especially near anthills, where their long, flattened, sticky tongues flick over the ground like those of anteaters.

Unlike the tongues of humans, which are primarily muscular, the tongues of birds are rigidly supported by a cartilage-and-bone skeleton called the hyoid apparatus. All higher vertebrates have hyoids of some sort; you can feel the horns of your own U-shaped hyoid bone by pinching the uppermost part of your throat. Because a woodpecker's tongue is way too long to fit in its mouth, storing it posed an evolutionary challenge. Several species of woodpeckers, including flickers, have solved the problem by sliding the base of their tongues (called the horns of the hyoid apparatus) into sheaths that wrap around the back and top of their skulls. The base of this tongue support is anchored in the right nostril.

Other interesting adaptations seen in some species of woodpeckers include modified joints between certain bones in the skull and upper jaw, as well as muscles that contract to absorb the shock of the hammering. Strong neck and tail-feather muscles, and a chisel-like bill are other hammering adaptations that are seen in some woodpecker species, depending upon their foraging methods.

This explains how the gila woodpecker can hammer away, apparently headache-free, on our metal chimney screen early on spring mornings. The sound reverberates throughout our house, as the woodpecker announces its territory through this version of a woodpecker's drumming "song."



About Tom Gatz

This article was reprinted from Gatherings, the Desert Botanical Garden volunteer newsletter, and The Cactus Wren-dition, the newsletter of Maricopa Audubon Society, both based in Phoenix, Arizona.

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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