Larry Collins

Back to: News
August 2, 2012
Follow News

COLLINS: Learning about the woodpecker

A. Woodpeckers are one of nature's most adaptive and interesting birds. The following "fun facts" will give some insight on why they are unique and differ from other birds.Most species of woodpeckers are born completely naked, unlike other birds that hatch with natal down. They have a thicker skin than most birds, an adaptation from their constant contact with rough tree bark.In addition to upper and lower eyelids, woodpeckers have a third eyelid. These translucent eyelids close horizontally, and prevent small bits of debris from entering while excavating (pecking) trees. Woodpeckers also have tufts that cover their nostrils. Their tail feathers are strong and rigid. It is these feathers that act as a kickstand, providing support while they're excavating trees. Because of these feathers and their short legs, backing down tree trunks is more difficult than climbing up.Woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet - two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward. Most birds have only one toe pointing backwards. These give woodpeckers a much better grip when they land on a tree trunk.The skulls and bills of woodpeckers are incredibly strong, yet lightweight. They can absorb a 10g impact, between 13-15 mph, the equivalent of a person running full speed into a solid object. They have flexible cartilage between their bill and their skulls. Their skulls are made of spongy, air-filled bone, and their brains are encased tightly into their skull. As a result, impact force is directed to the neck, not the brain.Woodpeckers have special cells at the end of their bills that constantly replace lost material. This keeps the chisel-pointed bill strong and resilient by allowing it to be sharpened with every blow. Woodpeckers' tongues are barbed and come to a sharp point. Their tongues are very sensitive, and are covered with a sticky mucus that keeps food from getting away. Woodpeckers' tongues are anchored in their nostrils. Their tongues are two to three times longer than their bills.They eat mainly ants, beetles and termites. They find their food by hollow tree sounds, noises made by insects, and possibly from the formic acid odor which ants secrete for attack and defense purposes.I have noticed that, when feeding, they become so engrossed when excavating a tree they sometimes are unaware of an approaching predator. This can cause them to become easy prey.Local bird expert Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard birdfeeding experience possible. Email your birdfeeding and birding questions to and he'll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column in the Free Press.

Explore Related Articles

The Post Independent Updated Aug 2, 2012 03:10PM Published Aug 2, 2012 03:09PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.