Bird of the Week: Downy Woodpecker

Weighing in at just under an ounce, the Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in North America. Despite their diminutive stature, these bluebird-sized woodpeckers are capable of superhuman feats of strength: the force with which they drill into trees is over a thousand times the force of gravity. By comparison, jet fighter pilots are subjected to g-forces of only 8 or 9 times the force of gravity, and even then must wear special pressurized suits to keep from fainting from the shock!

Woodpeckers are uniquely adapted to smacking their heads against hard surfaces repeatedly. For one thing, their skulls contain very little fluid, which keeps their brains from sloshing around. Their posture, with the tail feathers firmly pressed against the tree, also helps redirect the force of each peck throughout the woodpecker’s body and back into the tree. Woodpeckers also have extremely unusual tongues: barbed and sticky to help them pry insects out of bark, they also wrap all the way around the skull by means of a cartilaginous organ called the hyoid apparatus. This allows the woodpecker to extend its tongue up to three times the length of its bill, and helps absorb the shock of being a living jackhammer!

Compiled by Owen Moorhead. Sources include the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.
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