Why Woodpeckers Can Safely Slam Their Faces Into Trees

These birds are highly evolved to do one job.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of The National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.

Episode Transcript: ​

As any artisan knows, when you have a job to do, it pays to have the right tools.

This is BirdNote. And THAT is a Pileated Woodpecker, as it leans back and then slams its chisel of a bill into the side of a living tree. Now, most animals would be knocked unconscious by slamming their faces into a tree at twenty-five miles per hour. 

But not this one. A skilled carpenter. Its head is its primary tool. And it's highly evolved for the job. All woodpeckers have an enlarged brain case, so the brain sits above the level of direct hammering impact. The skull’s frontal bones, folded at the base of the bill, act as a shock absorber, together with a set of muscles there.

Now out comes the woodpecker’s amazing tongue, at least three times the length of its bill, with sticky barbs at the tip, to snag ants and other insects deep in the tree. When not extended, the tongue is sheathed up the back of the bird’s skull, curling all the way around to the eyes! 

So knock on wood! If you’re lucky, there’s an Audubon chapter near you, ready to help you learn more about the amazing abilities of birds. Begin with a visit to our website, birdnote.org. I’m Michael Stein. 


Written by Bob Sundstrom
Narrator: Michael Stein
Call and pecking of the Pileated Woodpecker provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Excavating sound of Pileated Woodpecker recorded by G.A. Keller. Hurried call of Pileated Woodpecker and pecking of Pileated Woodpecker recorded by D. S. Herr.
BirdNote's theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Dominic Black
© 2014 Tune In to Nature.org     December 2016