5 Amazing Facts About the Woodpeckers: Birds of Central Texas

“I’ve got a surprise for you!” A fieldmate holds out a small bag. It safely contains a bird (all birds are handled with permitting and training).

I reach my hand into the bag and pull out a woodpecker. Whoa. A rare catch and one of my favorite birds.

It was day 10 or 11 of camping across Central Texas and sampling birds for avian malaria. My two fieldmates and I had settled into an easy rhythm.

Pre-dawn wakeups went flawlessly. Water was set to boil, peanut butter found bread, water bottles were refilled in a silence that was as much exhausted as appreciative of the Frio River’s quiet flow.

The river was a little closer than it had been when we set up camp. Sometime in the night, we’d been summoned from our tents to rescue our line-drying socks from a torrential downpour. One fieldmate was forced to abandon her non-waterproof tent for the truck. Still, the beautiful morning and now the woodpecker, more than made up for the slightly miserable night.

Let me tell you a little bit about why woodpeckers are so great…

Woodpeckers have Built-in Head Gear

Ok, let’s do an experiment. Nod your head up and down as fast and hard as you can. Did that give you a headache? Now, imagine the added impact of a tree! How do woodpeckers do it?

  1. Their tongue wraps around their skulls as padding.
  2. Neck muscles absorb the impact
  3. The brain is nestled tightly into the skull–there’s no room for jiggling around!
  4. A third eyelid keeps the eye in place

With all these adaptations, woodpeckers are free to knock on wood without fear of concussions.

Zygodactyl Feet

“Zygodactyl” seems like it could be a dinosaur name. And perhaps that’s fitting, as birds are descendants of a specific lineage of dinosaurs. However, zygodactyl is just a fancy word to mean a four-toed foot where two toes face forward and two face backward. This allows woodpeckers to hang on vertical surfaces, like trees.

Undulating Flight Pattern

Want to know how to identify a woodpecker as it flies? Look at its flight pattern. Woodpeckers have a moment when they completely close their wings, thus dropping in altitude. Thus, they resemble flappy bird. It’s as though they are hopping across the sky.

Their Tails Help Hold Them Steady

Woodpeckers have stiff tails. This serves to steady them as they drum away. Thus, they don’t lose their balance and fall from the tree!

Drumming Isn’t Just About Finding Food

If you hear a woodpecker drumming, you might assume it’s drilling for insects. And while this might be true, drumming actually serves multiple purposes. They might be excavating a cavity for a nest, claiming territory, or wooing the females.

Woodpeckers are some of my favorite birds! What did you think of these fun facts?

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