We usually hear woodpeckers before we see them – the rapid peck, peck, pecking on a tree or utility pole or house. Lately I’ve heard a lot of woodpeckers (ah, spring!) and I always stop to see if I can spot the bird behind the sound. And then I marvel at all the adaptations that allow them to live a life of wood pecking.
Woodpecker beaks and skulls are specially designed to not only bore into wood as the birds look for food, but also to protect their brains from the shock of the boring. Their beaks are strong and sturdy, with a tip like a chisel. They are also designed to absorb and dissipate energy, so the force generated by the pecking is reduced before it reaches the skull. Woodpeckers’ skulls, though, are also unique – they are thick and spongy and fit tightly around the birds’ brains to prevent brain damage. Even the eyes of woodpeckers are suited to a life of pecking wood; they have special clear membranes that protect the eyes from flying debris, like goggles. And if all that cool stuff wasn’t enough, woodpeckers also have amazing tongues. They are long and sticky and have a barbed tip, perfect for plucking insects from inside the holes they drill. And one last woodpecker nugget – there are approximately 300 species throughout the world, with close to two dozen of them living in North America.