Wild World of Woodpeckers

Adaptations abound for nature’s excavators

“What was that?!” my ten year old son recently exclaimed as a large bird flew past the kitchen window  and landed high in a big old roadside maple tree. As we peered out for a better look we quickly recognized the Pileated Woodpecker busily flicking pieces of bark and dead wood. Watching these amazing creatures go about their work never gets old.

Pileated woodpeckers Photo: Kendall Ronning

Although there are ten species of woodpeckers that have been recorded in Vermont only half of them (Downy, Hairy, Pileated, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Northern Flicker) are considered common throughout the state. If you happen to encounter one of these woodpeckers on your next adventure through the forest, take a moment to consider these amazing facts:

These beaks are made for pounding. Woodpeckers have what are called chisel beaks, allowing them to excavate live or dead wood in search of food or to create a nesting cavity. Cells in the tip of the beak are constantly being replaced, preventing them from being worn down.

No ibuprofen needed. A woodpecker may chisel away at wood up to 10,000 times in a single day, each strike at least 1,000 times the force of gravity. How do they not get a headache or suffer serious damage to their brain? There are likely a number of adaptations involved. One is the hyoid bone, a looping structure around the entire skull that may serve as a “safety belt”.  Another adaptation is that the upper and lower halves of the bird’s beak is uneven, and as force is transmitted from the tip of the beak into the hyoid bone, the unevenness lowers the force transmitted to the brain. Finally, there are a number of sponge-like structures at various points in the skull that help to distribute the impact forces.

Fancy footwork. Most woodpecker have two toes facing forward and two backward.  Scientists call this a zygodactyl arrangement. This allows the birds to easily cling to and climb the trunks of trees. The backward-facing toes can even rotate sideways to get more of a grip.

Safety first. The woodchips do fly when a woodpecker is chiseling away. To protect their eyes from the debris, the birds have a translucent third eyelid, called a nictitating membrane, which can be drawn across the eye while maintaining visibility. Likewise, they have bristle-like feathers over the nostrils to prevent unwanted inhalation of wood particles. OSHA would approve.

Vermont’s resident woodpecker species are active all year long.  Whether it be in your backyard, a local park, or a visit to the Green Mountain Audubon Center, get out there and marvel in the wild world of woodpeckers!

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