Bird Watcher's General Store

Do Woodpeckers Ever Get Headaches? - 04/26/02


Dear Bird Folks,

Do woodpeckers ever get headaches?

Sandy, Grade 7, Orleans

Hi Sandy,

Ya know, I've never really thought about it, all that banging could give woodpeckers headaches. That would explain the suet-flavored aspirin that I saw in CVS last week. You would think that they would get headaches from the way they pound on trees, but luckily for them they have evolved a rather tough head. Much like a soccer player or a tall coal miner.

Woodpeckers are one of our most common backyard birds, yet they have features that are totally different from other feeder birds. Woodpeckers have developed a much larger brain case that keeps the birds from getting a concussion every time they have to chop out lunch. They also have a different muscle and bone structure at the base of the bill that acts like shock absorbers to help cusion the blows. And the tail of a woodpecker is very stiff and strong. It acts like a kickstand to prop the bird up, allowing it to lean back and smack the tree. Even the feet of woodpeckers are different. Most of our feeder birds have three toes in the front and one in the back, but most woodpeckers have two in the front and two in the back, giving the bird a better grip on the trunk of the tree. They even have special feathers that cover their nostrils to keep out "sawdust."

I know this is a little dull to read, Sandy, but you asked and it's not about to get any better. The tongue of a woodpecker is the most unusual. The tongue is extra long and wraps around in the back of a woodpecker's head. It shoots out, like on of those annoying party favors, when the bird wants to reach into a tree for an insect. The tongue is also barbed and sticky so it can grab bugs that are hiding deep in a tiny hole. Their very useful tongue saves the bird much work by allowing it to pull out food without having to chisel so deep into the tree. Wow, a tongue like that would come in handy for snapping up doughnut crumbs off your lap.

Woodpeckers may not get headaches, but they sure can cause a few. Not a day goes by that I don't have to listen to someone complain about a woodpecker banging on their house. It was nice of you to write a question of concern about a woodpecker and their possible headaches. Wait a minute! Was this a question of concern or did I just do your seventh grade science project for you? If it is for your science project and you get an "A" I want to know about it. It would be my first.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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