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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