Woodpecker Adaptations Overview

How many times have you heard the cool stillness of a woodland morning interrupted by the staccato hammering of an unseen woodpecker? Let’s look at the physical adaptations that allow the woodpecker to fill its role as “the woodland carpenter.”

Woodpeckers are most noted for their stout, chisel-like beaks which they use to drill holes in trees to obtain food or make a home. The beak is also used for drumming, which is the male’s way of signaling to his mate or declaring his territory to other woodpeckers. 

When searching for food, the woodpecker drills a small hole, then uses its narrow, probing tongue to dislodge and extract insects from their burrows in the wood or bark. For choice morsels in those hard-to-reach places, the woodpecker may extend its tongue four to five inches beyond the tip of its beak. 

Watching the force with which the woodpecker strikes the tree, it’s amazing that the bird can hold on. Its toe arrangement, two toes facing forward and two backward, gives the woodpecker a solid base on which to cling to the tree. Its sharp claws dig into the wood, and its stiff, square tail feathers braced against the tree act as a support prop. 

Even the woodpecker’s skull is specially designed to withstand repeated blows and to protect the bird’s brain from concussion. Unlike other birds, the bones between the beak and the skull are joined by a flexible cartilage, which cushions the shock of each blow. 

Seven species of woodpeckers call the Mountain State home. The next time you’re near some woods, listen for their knocking.