A natural wonder: the woodpecker’s tongue

It’s safe to say that anyone who has seen a woodpecker in action has probably been surprised by the strength and speed with which they attack a tree’s wood. In fact, the most common way to find a woodpecker is by following the sound of its pecking until you can spot it amongst the trees.

The woodpecker is definitely an interesting bird, not only because of the way it pecks, but also due to its attractive feathers. It’s well-known for its red crest, however there are other brown and gold species of woodpeckers as well.

The intense way that woodpeckers move their heads has been the subject of biology research, and the results have shown that both the physical strength they use to peck holes in trees, as well as their feeding habits are directly related to their tongues. Here, we’ll tell you about this surprising finding, and more about this bird’s characteristics.

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There are more than 300 woodpecker species around the world, and they’re usually found in forest areas with large and medium-size trees. Woodpeckers aren’t migratory as they can easily adapt to summer and winter.

Some of the most notable species are:

  • The wryneck
  • The sapsucker
  • The great slaty woodpecker
  • The striped woodpecker
  • The piculet
  • The pileated woodpecker

The size of woodpeckers can vary between 15 cm and 35 cm depending on the species, but in North America and Europe they can grow even larger than that because these habitats are ideal for their development. According to the theories of Charles Darwin, the woodpecker’s anatomy would a direct result of its diet. However, it’s also influenced by other common factors such as competition, climate, and predators.

Woodpeckers are omnivores, and they find insects, fruit, and tree sap in the holes that they make in trees, which are between 10 cm and 15 cm large. This is why woodpeckers have extremely long tongues that wrap all the way around their heads; their tongues start in the nasal cavities, run past their eyes, around their brains, and into their mouths.

In their throats, woodpeckers’ tongues split into a “Y” shape, allowing them to stay on either side of their spines. This part of their anatomy is certainly remarkable, and worthy of being recognized as one of nature’s best designs.

This unique tongue allows them to reach food deep within trees because, as opposed to most birds, woodpeckers can stick their tongues out of their beaks to catch insects, larvae, or tree sap.

Besides being long, woodpeckers’ tongues are also narrow and barbed so that they can catch insects. These birds also produce sticky saliva so that they can use their tongues as rakes when they move them around the holes they’ve made in trees.

 

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There’s also an interesting anatomical explanation of the way that woodpeckers peck holes in trees. They hammer through wood and move branches aside not only to look for food, but also to make a space for their nests. Woodpeckers’ heads strike wood with 1,000 times the strength of gravity, and they can do this 12,000 times a day without getting hurt.

There are several ways in which the impact of their pecking is mitigated:

  • Their chiselled beaks can break through wood.
  • There’s little space inside their skulls for the brain to get bumped around.
  • Their bone structure adjusts under impact.
  • The pecking movement is concentrated in the lower beak which keeps the impact away from the brain.

There are two main woodpecker species that can be seen in Costa Rica. The first is the Hoffman woodpecker, which can be found on the Nicoya Peninsula, and then there’s the ladder-backed woodpecker which is the largest in the country, measuring at least 34 cm. The pale-billed woodpecker has also occasionally been spotted.

On the bird watching tour at Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, you’ll have the opportunity to see birds such as the noble woodpecker as well as many other animal species.

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