The Woodpecker

How much wood would a woodpecker peck…?

Rat-a-tat-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat! Do I sound familiar? I’m Downy Woodpecker, and I’m here by the wondrous design of my great Creator. Rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat.

Most birds are more often seen than heard. We woodpeckers are more often heard than seen. You hear rat-a-tat-tat, then you try to see us. There are perhaps as many as 20 kinds of us, some as small as six-inches in length, some as long as 19 inches. I’m Downy Woodpecker, and my claim to fame is the bright red crest on my head. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat!

Why do I peck so much? I peck to find food, and I peck to make my nest in the spring. I peck to attract a mate, and I peck to establish territories. Rat-a-tat-tat! Pecking is a way of life for me. Sometimes I peck holes simply because I want to create my own food supply. You see, where I leave a hole in a dying tree, insects are likely to take up residence, and that creates a ready food supply for me for some time later. How about that!

Special shock-absorbers…

Can you imagine pounding your head against a wall 8,000 to 10,000 times? They say that is the number of times I peck each day! But don’t feel sorry for me. I don’t break my nose, or come away with a splitting headache—none of that—because I was designed to peck! Truly my Creator’s designs are awesome. He placed tiny air pockets in my skull to absorb the shock and protect my brain, something like the way you use air-filled plastic sacks to protect your merchandise in shipping. (You thought someone had a new idea in your generation?!) In addition, my Designer fitted my brain so tightly inside my skull that it cannot move, in this way avoiding concussions. Plus I have special shock-absorbing cartilage between my bill and my head. So when my highly efficient neck muscles produce that ongoing series of rapid movements—that compulsive rat-a-tat-tat—I don’t suffer one little bit. Isn’t my Creator’s design marvelous?

Downy Woodpeckers

Special tongues…

Now, how much wood can a woodpecker peck? That all depends on why we are pecking. If I’m starting a nest hole, I hammer and twist my head from side to side, flinging wood chips left and right to get them out of the way. If I’m looking for a mate, I find a piece of wood or a branch that is particularly resonant—maybe even a gutter downspout—and use it like a drum to—you guessed it—I just want to make a big noise. If I’m searching for food, I tap lightly on a dead limb, then cock my head and listen intently for that sound of scurrying grubs. Then rat-a-tat-tat! I know just where to peck so as to invade their channel inside the tree.

Beetle larvae are often just beneath the outer layer of wood, in shallow channels that can stretch up and down the trunk for several inches—or even feet. Using my chisel bill I make a small hole into the channel. Then I thrust in my tongue and probe around. If it’s a hit of grubs, yummmmm! I skewer my prey with my tongue—the tip is hard and sharply pointed—to penetrate the soft body of a larval insect. Then, tiny rear-facing barbs on my tongue grab hold of the insect as I carefully withdraw my tongue. Mmmmm!

Gila Woodpecker

Don’t you see that my tongue is a very specially designed instrument? To be able to snag insects out of tree trunks, our tongues must be longer than our bills, even three or four times as long. Some of us have a tongue so long that it forks in our throat, goes below the base of the jaw, and wraps behind and over the top of our head, where the forks rejoin and insert in our right nostril, or around the eye socket. Amazing? One thing sure: I didn’t design it! All credit to my wonderful Creator!

Red-bellied Woodpecker

How does a woodpecker manipulate such a tongue? Within the entire length of our tongue is an apparatus which is a linear series of tiny bones sheathed in muscles and soft tissue. These tiny bones fold up accordion like along part of their length. When I want to stick out my tongue, I simply contract the muscles near the base of the apparatus. This forces the tiny bones forward inside their sheath and propels my tongue out of my bill. When I relax the muscles, my tongue shortens and is drawn back inside. My tongue is also equipped with longitudinal muscles so that it can move from side to side as I look for food in a hole I’ve made in a tree.

When we’re newly hatched, our tongue is quite short. This makes it much easier for our parents to stick food items inside our hungry, gaping mouths. But as we get older, our tongue grows longer and longer, so that when we need to go hunting on our own, we are all equipped. Isn’t it amazing?

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

One of our kind, the Northern Flicker, has a smooth, sticky tongue. Why sticky? Because the flicker was designed to live on ants. Did he just “happen” to develop the long, sticky tongue he needs to probe inside an anthill? Again, remember our Designer! With the right kind of

tongue, all the flicker has to do to harvest a meal is to stick his tongue into an anthill, and with one smooth and rapid flick, he snares hundreds of ants in his sticky saliva and draws them back into his mouth. Yummm! A northern flicker can eat thousands of carpenter ants in a day. It’s another wonder of our amazing design!

Special feet…

We woodpeckers also have special feet. They call them zygodactyl feet—which says that we have two toes in front and two in back (most birds have three in front and one in back). Why are we different? The special two plus two arrangement makes me very secure as I hop straight up, down and around the tree trunks, as I drill holes in search of food. My Designer has also given me stiff tail feathers, so that I can brace myself against the trunk of the tree as I tap. Between my special feet and stiff tail I have a perfect tripod to keep me steady as I rat-a-tat-tat!

I truly want to join the Psalmist and “sing a new song to the Lord, for he has done wonderful deeds” (Ps. 98:1 NLT).