For my first posting, I’d like to focus on woodpeckers. These birds live in many areas of the world and there are several species that I’ve been lucky to see in my yard and on my travels. Many of those I’ve seen have bits of red or a hint of yellow color, like the pileated woodpecker ((Dryocopus pileatus, below left). Some are occasional visitors, like the Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus, below right) that was perched on my persimmon tree.
The downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens), like the male on the left below, and the red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus), such as this male to his right, come to my feeders every day.
Some of these birds are difficult to photograph, like the beautiful red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) that sometimes frustrate me because they go behind leaves or stay at a really far distance so that getting a good shot of them is very hard!
What’s really interesting about woodpeckers is that these birds have adapted over time to protect their brains from damage when they repeatedly peck away at wood, trees, utility poles, trash cans — or my rain gutters, making a VERY loud sound as they try to attract mates! Woodpeckers can tap up to 8,000-12,000 times a day (22 times per second)! So how do they protect themselves from this jarring activity?
Their brains are protected within their skulls and they only make contact with an object for a very short time with each peck. Just before they peck on wood, they close a thick eyelid (called the nictitating membrane) to protect their eyes from wood chips and special feathers protect their nostrils. They also have strong muscles at the base of their beaks that act as shock absorbers to lessen the impact of the hard pecking. In fact, In fact, scientists used studies of the golden-fronted woodpecker ‘s head and neck when they designed a shock absorption system to protect microelectronics!
Golden-fronted woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) that I saw in Mexico
Woodpeckers are important in nature because they help control insect populations. Their nest cavities are also used by birds and animals (deer mice, raccoons, flying squirrels) that cannot create cavities themselves. A few species will use nest boxes. A downy woodpecker used a bluebird box in my yard as its night-time refuge over the past winter.
Next blog: deer antlers!