Posts Tagged ‘woodpeckers’

downy woodpecker drumming

Whether you’re a professional athlete or a parent just trying to keep an active child safe, concussions are a growing concern these days. Post-concussion problems endured by football players and other brain injury survivors are not new.  However, concussions sustained by local hockey wonderkid Sidney Crosby have brought more attention to the potential danger of head injuries over the past year. 

downy woodpeckerRecently, researchers in China decided to answer a question asked by scientists and birdwatchers around the world:  Why aren’t woodpeckers harmed by their head banging?  They discovered that there were three factors that enabled woodpeckers’ brains to survive intact after repeated blows to their heads:

1.  The top and bottom parts of  a woodpecker’s beak are uneven in length, and the longer bottom beak deflects force away from the bird’s brain on impact.

2.  Unlike us, the woodpecker brain is encased in spongy plate-like bones.  These are arranged unevenly around the brain and leave no space between the brain and skull.

3.  A seatbelt-like hyoid bone connects the beak to the skull where it then surrounds the brain.

woodpecker drumming

Together, these factors ensure that the woodpecker’s brain is affected as little as possible  by the constant impact of head banging. 

Unfortunately, even if these factors were incorporated into the design of sports safety helmets, there is no way to get around the fact that human brains are separated from our skulls by a gap that is non-existent in woodpeckers.   And it’s the motion of the brain within this space that would still remain a factor in potential injuries.

So, unless you’re a woodpecker, the best way to avoid head banging injury to your brain is to not bang it in the first place.

For more information, see Why Do Woodpeckers Resist Head Impact Injury:  A Biomechanical Investigation.

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Drilling for your dinner might give you a headache, but it’s the way of the woodpeckers.  Two types of birds in this family that are especially helpful at keeping the insect population down are the Northern Flickers and the Hairy Woodpeckers. 

Flickers are frequently seen digging into the lawn with their beaks.  They’re a tawny brown with black bars and spots, and sport a bright red bar on the back of their necks.  Their nests are made in hollowed out tree trunks usually found in old growth forests.  Ants are their favorite food and they’re equipped with especially long, raspy tongues ideal for capturing them.

Hairy Woodpeckers are usually seen clinging to tree trunks.  They’re black and white and are slightly larger than the similar Downy Woodpeckers also found in Nova Scotia, with a longer beak and the absence of a black bar on their white tail feathers.  Males of both species have a red dot on the back of their heads.  They excavate their nests in live trees.  They will drill for insects year round, dining on the larvae found under the bark of trees during the winter months.  Feathers over woodpeckers’ nostrils prevent them from inhaling the wood that’s flicked off during the drilling process.

hairy woodpecker

If these woodpeckers didn’t visit my yard, there’d probably be a lot more ants and other insects around.  The sound of their persistent drilling and drumming is most welcome.

Even the woodpecker owes his success to the fact that he uses his head and keeps pecking away until he finishes the job he starts.

~ Coleman Cox

For more information on Northern Flickers, see The Flying Anteater.

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The ants are already active in the yard after such a mild winter.  So, I’m glad to see that a couple of Northern flickers have made a nest nearby.  They are the ants’ worst enemy.

Flickers may not be easy to spot in the morning mist, but their calls to one another are strong and lively.  They’ve been working on their nest in an old tree for the past week.  I’ve also spotted them looking for ants in the lawn. 

These migrating members of the woodpecker family have an unusually long and raspy tongue, not unlike that of an anteater. After digging holes in the ground with their sharp beaks, they use this sticky tongue to gather numerous ants, pupae and eggs quickly and efficiently.  Ants and other insects are the flickers’ primary food. 

Flickers make their nests in old trees, also known as snags.  After a 3 inch diameter hole is made, a large cavity about 15 inches deep is created by both parents.  Six to eight eggs are also incubated by the pair.

At this point, the cavity is still being excavated as I frequently see the birds flinging wood chips out of the hole.  Although they are known to re-use old cavities, this nest is a new one, and there’s much work to be done to create such a deep nesting hole.  The fungus seen growing next to the hole in these photos was removed by them yesterday afternoon.  They’re busy all day long, and the harder they work, the more ants they eat.  Imagine how many ants this entire family will consume over the summer months!

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It’s not uncommon to find birds’ nests in my yard.  A few years ago, I took an inventory and managed to count ten.  I’ve found them resting on branches, in tree cavities and on the ground.  Many last long after the nesting season is over, sometimes into the following year.  They are sturdy and surprisingly well hidden.  In order to take the above photo, I had to extend my arm above my head while reaching into a tree.

Different species of birds use a variety of techniques to build nests.  What is most interesting is how different couples work together to get the job done.  Here are some of the many ways that couples share the task.

  • Males and females work together equally, ie. woodpeckers.  (Thelma, would you hold this for me while I drill it?)
  • The female selects and completes one of several sample nests made by the male, ie.wrens (I’m not 100% sure George, but I think this one will look best after I spruce it up a little.  What do you think?).
  • The male gathers nest-building materials and brings them to the female who builds the nest, ie. mourning doves (Here’s another piece of thread, darling).
  • The female gathers the materials and builds the nest all by herself , ie. hummingbirds(Just get out of my way John.  Can’t you see I’m working here?  There’ll be time for that later).
  • Both gather the materials but only the female builds the nest, ie. American robins (Ok Roger, the twig I found should fit, if you get me a smaller one to place beneath it).
  • The female gathers the materials and brings them to the male who builds the nest (Nice lichens Dorothy.  Are there any more where those came from?)
  • The male gathers the materials and builds the nest all by himself, ie. some shrikes (You know what a perfectionist Mark is.  He likes to take his time and get everything just right).

Regardless of ‘how’ the task is completed, nests are built annually, providing a stable shelter for offspring during inclement weather and safety from predators.    Not all couples may share the task equally but all being results-oriented, they manage to get the job done on time and within budget.  If only human couples could work so well together!

The above techniques are from The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of American Birds.

See here for a classified list of nests that may still be on the market this season.

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