The Woodpecker's Amazing Physical Characteristics

Updated on December 11, 2018
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I am an avid self-taught gardener (I learn as problems arise), bird watcher, and nature lover.


You may be wondering what physical characteristics a woodpecker has that make it so amazing. A bird is a bird, you say. However, as I watched a Pileated woodpecker drilling on a dead tree, I found myself intrigued by its long beak and strange-looking claws. Then this simple intrigue turned to curiosity. And with the curiosity came questions. Such as:

  • How does he support himself while drilling into a tree without falling off?
  • How does he get his food out of a tree, and if it is a Northern Flicker, out of an anthill?
  • Why don't woodpeckers get wood dust and particles in their eyes, like humans?
  • Why does he drum against a tree, a deck or roof?
  • Why doesn’t a woodpecker get a headache from all his drumming and drilling?

These questions may seem ridiculous, and may even make you want to chuckle. However, I encourage you to read on. Why? Because you will find, as I did, that the woodpecker is truly an amazing physical wonder of nature

Quick Facts

  • The largest North American Woodpecker is the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (20 Inches) followed by the Pileated Woodpecker (18 inches).
  • The smallest North American Woodpecker is the Downy Woodpecker (6-8 inches)
  • Lifespan: Around 4 years.
  • Common Foods Eaten: Nuts, berries, insects, larvae, seeds.
  • By exploring the workings of the woodpecker's skull, it is helping scientists to discover ways in which to protect delicate electronics inside your smartphone and other devices.

The Woodpecker's Head

Why doesn't a woodpecker get a headache from all that drilling and drumming that he does? That is a good question. Especially since it can strike a tree at least 20 times a second with an impact of 1,200 g's. For a human, that would definitely stir the brain.

The skull of a woodpecker is uniquely adapted to absorb the shock when it strikes against a tree. This is possible due to its beak and its supporting structures. Let me explain.

When the woodpecker strikes a tree the impact is absorbed by three different structures:

  • First, the outer portion of the beak takes the initial impact.
  • Second, the inner spongy bone that connects to the beak will siphon off more of the impact.
  • Third, the brain shield will absorb any of the remaining impact that may be felt.

Once the initial strike is absorbed by these three structures, there is an aftershock vibration. The aftershock vibration is absorbed by a tendon-like filament called the hyoid that surrounds the bird's skull. Moreover, this multi-purpose tendon also supports the tongue and throat.

Beaks, Tongues and the Search for Food

The woodpecker's beak and tongue work hand in hand in its search for food. The beak is used as a chisel and crowbar, prying back the bark of a tree to find insects. Then the bird's tongue retrieves the insects, larvae, or sap that it finds.

The length of the tongue varies in length, some being three times longer than their beaks. Since the tongue is longer than the beak, nature has made room for it by anchoring the tongue at the base of the bill and wrapping it around the skull. Here are some quick examples as to how some of the different species of woodpeckers forage for food.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker will tap on the tree, cock his head sideways and listen intently for insects or grubs that may be trying to get away or eating on the wood. If he hears movement, he will pry the bark away from the tree with his beak and drill a hole just large enough to get the insects out. Once the hole is drilled, the bird will take his tongue and probe around.

If he finds the food he is seeking, he will spear it with the tip of his tongue, which is hard, pointed, and sensitive to touch. Even though insect trails in the wood may be deep, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker can reach the insect with their tongue with little problem because its tongue is about 3 times longer than its beak's length.

Sapsucker Woodpecker

The Sapsucker's main goal is to lap up the sap within a tree, so his tongue is a little different. Its tongue is shorter than the Red-Bellied Woodpecker and edged with feathery bristles. Along with its tongue capillary action, the Sapsucker can easily lap up the delicious sweet sap. Please note: the sapsucker does not suck up the sap, but laps it with its flicking tongue.

Northern Flicker

The Northern Flicker is a ground-feeding woodpecker. Its tongue is smooth, sticky, and about 5 inches long. The sticky tongue allows the bird to flick the ants into his mouth without much thought.

Eye Protection

Being around flying dust and wood, you would think that the woodpecker would go blind. However, a thick membrane protects the eyes of the bird. This membrane will close over the bird's eyes in a millisecond before it strikes its beak against wood.

Claws and Tails–the Keys to Balance

The woodpecker uses both his feet and tail to anchor and balance itself onto a tree.

The bird has four clawed toes, with two pointing backward, and two pointing forward. The claws allow the bird to get a firm grasp on a tree trunk. Once the claws of the bird are buried deep into the bark of the tree, it will use its stiff tail to balance and brace itself while drilling.

Drumming—What Does It Mean?

The drumming sound that a woodpecker makes against a tree, roof or deck, is unmistakable, if not annoying. However, there are several reasons why they drum.

1. To attract a mate. The drumming sound to attract a mate is of a particular pattern and tempo. The drumming sound is heard in the spring when they are mating, and in the early morning when most humans want to sleep.

2. To communicate to competitors that the nearby territory is now his, and the strength of the drumming is an attempt to warn others to stay away.

To conclude, the woodpecker can be beautiful or comical looking. However, you cannot dispute the fact that nature has created a bird that is also an amazing physical machine.


Hilton Pond Center -

Questions & Answers

  • Why do woodpeckers make a nest with dry grass and sticks?

    The woodpecker actually makes their nest from wood chips. Where do the wood chips come from? When they drill in the tree to build a cavity for their nest, these wood chips are used. the depth of the cavity depends upon the species. Example: Downy woodpecker cavity is 1 foot deep. A Pileated woodpecker is 2 feet deep from opening.


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