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Five Fun Facts About Those Wacky Woodpeckers

Woodpeckers are unique among birds for how they make their presence known. They have chisel-like bills that are perfect for their trademark behavior — pecking at wood.

A red-headed woodpecker. (Photo via Shutterstock)

All that banging and hammering may get your attention long before you ever see a woodpecker nearby. And they can hammer away faster than we can even count. They have been clocked at 20 pecks a second, which can add up to between 8,000 and 20,000 pecks a day.

That repetitive pecking is something to admire, unless they are doing it nearby. Then it can be annoying. Woodpeckers usually hammer on wood, and if your house includes wooden structures, they may consider this a part of their usual territory. Sometimes they even hammer on non-wooden structures, such as aluminum siding and gutters.

There are more than 180 different kinds of woodpeckers in the world. North America is home to 17 woodpecker species, and seven live in Illinois. Our resident woodpeckers are the downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, northern flicker, pileated woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, red-headed woodpecker and yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Here are some interesting facts about this group of birds.

All that pecking is important

All the pecking and tapping woodpeckers do is vital to the birds’ survival for many reasons. One important purpose is searching for food. Many insects, insect eggs and insect larvae can be found under a tree's bark or in the wood of a tree. Pecking into a tree helps the woodpecker uncover a meal. Woodpeckers also peck into trees to build nesting cavities. Some woodpeckers make holes in wood for storing food.

Woodpeckers also use all that noise to attract a mate and establish a territory. The pecking and tapping male woodpeckers do to attract a mate is called drumming. It is most often heard during the spring breeding season.

They are built to withstand all that whacking

If you repeatedly slammed your head against a wall, you would expect to get a headache, or maybe even a concussion. However, woodpeckers can do it day after day.

Recent research on woodpeckers shows the birds do experience some consequences from all that hammering. In fact, researchers have discovered protein accumulations in their brains similar to that seen in athletes who experience head injuries.

Still, though, woodpeckers are much better built to withstand the repeated head banging. First, they have very small brains, weighing just 0.07 ounces. Bigger brains have more mass, which increases the risk of brain damage. Their brains also fit tightly inside their skulls, so they don't move around very much.

The design of their skulls is also helpful. Their frontal bones work with a pair of muscles at the base of their bills to act as a shock absorber.

Their tongues are impressive

Many woodpeckers eat insects, and the ones that do have tongues perfect for the job. Insect-eating woodpeckers have long tongues that help them grab onto insects.

Their tongues can extend as much as 2 inches past the tips of their bills. So how are they able to store them? When pulled into their mouths, their tongues are pulled into a sheath at the base of their skulls. It then wraps up toward the top of the skull.

Even their toes are different

Woodpeckers are different from many other birds from their heads down to their toes. They have what's called a zygodactyl toe. Their feet have four toes, two that face forward and two that face backward. This is different from the feet of other songbirds. They also have four toes, but three facing forward and one backward.

This specialized toe structure helps woodpeckers climb and grab onto trees and other structures. They can easily hop up and down tree trunks, propping themselves up on their strong, stiff tail feathers.

Woody Woodpecker is based on a real woodpecker

The most well-known fictional woodpecker is based on a real woodpecker, but not the one many people think it is. Cartoonist and animator Walter Lantz created his most famous character after his wife, Grace, suggested it. The two had traveled to a cabin in California, and a noisy acorn woodpecker disturbed the peace and quiet. Walter was annoyed by the bird, so Grace suggested he let it serve as inspiration for a new animated character. Soon, Woody Woodpecker was born.

The cartoon woodpecker bears a striking resemblance to the pileated woodpecker, but Woody is actually based on the acorn woodpecker. It's easy to see why many think the animated character was inspired by the pileated woodpecker. Woody looks more like a pileated woodpecker than an acorn woodpecker.


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