Wild Birds Unlimited – Omaha, NE

September 26, 2013

Woodpeckers—Built Tough as Nails

Filed under: Birds — wbuomaha @ 10:31 am
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Downy on peanut feeder
In writing about the Downy Woodpecker, the famous naturalist and artist John James Audubon observed that it was “not surpassed by any of its tribe in hardiness, industry, or vivacity”. In today’s terms we would just say that it is downright tough!

The Downy Woodpecker, along with all of its woodpecker relatives, has an amazing array of adaptations which allow it to live a punishing existence that most other birds would probably consider a life condemned to hard labor. Even a woodpecker’s skin is tough! It is actually thicker than most other birds, providing it with an extra level of protection while knocking about on the rough bark of trees. This tough skin also helps defend the bird against painful bites of ants and other insects on which it feeds.

Woodpeckers are not only thick-skinned; they are hard-headed too. Their skulls and bills are incredibly strong and yet lightweight, due in part to the reinforcement provided by a meshwork of bony support struts. The portion of the skull nearest the tip of the bill is also bolstered by extra layers of tough calcification.

And speaking of the bill – with all of that pounding, why doesn’t it wear down to a ragged nub? Wear down it does, but special cells on the end of the bill constantly replace the lost material. This keeps the chisel-pointed bill strong and resilient, while actually allowing it to be sharpened with every blow.
cropped flicker
While excavating a cavity, a woodpecker’s head can strike a tree’s surface at speeds up to 15 mph. The force of this impact would be enough to create brain damage in most other birds, while a human brain would be at least fifty times more likely than a woodpecker’s to suffer damage (imagine running headfirst into a tree at full speed). Woodpeckers are able to survive this pounding due to their numerous special adaptations, including a skull that is specially structured to cushion the blows while also transmitting the impact force away from the brain.

The other end of a woodpecker is also built tough. It’s pointed tail feathers are especially strong and rigid. The tail bone, lower vertebrae, and the tail’s supporting muscles are also large in comparison to other birds. These modifications allow a woodpecker’s tail to serve as a prop that supports its weight as it climbs and clings to trees.
BNP_Tail prop KQ7S7317_4c
The woodpecker’s unique tail is just one of its many adaptations which you can witness as these hardy birds visit your yard. Woodpeckers can easily be attracted to feeders filled with suet and no-melt suet dough and are especially drawn to the varieties containing nuts or bugs. They also love peanuts (in or out of the shell) and almonds. Other foods they like include sunflower seed, safflower seed, and suet nuggets. If your backyard habitat includes mature trees, it is likely you can attract woodpeckers to your feeders.
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