What with all that pecking, why aren't most woodpeckers retards?

Apparently, this was the subject of neurological research in the 1970s. Both The Lancet (1976) and Archives of Neurology (1979) published studies on this very subject.

Here's the rundown:

In addition to keeping it's eyes closed and striking the exact same point everytime to avoid rotational damage, "shock waves are transmitted less readily in the woodpecker's head than in a human's because the former has a narrow space between the skull and the brain, with very little fluid, and the woodpecker's brain is packed tightly by dense yet spongy bone which buffers the force to the brain. Additionally, some of the muscles in the woodpecker's head contract, which helps to absorb and distribute the shock. Structures from the base of the tongue extend round the brain and may also absorb shocks."


Why a woodpecker would win in a fight with Mike Tyson?

Obviously, both parties in this fight possess a number of advantages, such as Mike weighing in at hundreds of times the weight of the bird, with a much bigger reach, or the bird being able to fly, small things like this. However, the characteristic I will discuss in this writeup is the ability to take a punch. Both fighters have extensive training of receiving heavy blows to the head, but who is the better training partner; Lennox Lewis or a tree?

The durability of the human brain and body has been investigated for centuries. Some of the most barbaric tests were conducted in the fifties by the US Air Force, investigating the effects of sudden decelerations and impacts. In some of these tests, human subjects experienced decelerations of up to 25g, with no lasting side effects (obviously there were some unpleasant short term effects however). Also, in numerous racing accidents and plane crashes, there are tales of people surviving hundreds of g's. Surely this sort of sturdiness can't be matched by a bird?

It has long been a topic of interest how a woodpecker manages to avoid serious brain damage while incessantly hammering on trees. The knocking sound produced by this act is used as part of a mating ritual, so unsurprisingly, male woodpeckers spend a large proportion of their time smashing their beaks into solid wood, at high speed, over and over again. The matter was investigated as early as 1976, when The Lancet published some initial observations on the structure of a woodpecker's skull and brain. The factors they mention include the spongy bone closely surrounding the woodpecker's brain which absorbs some of the impact, the muscles in the neck of the bird which contract on impact to reduce the jarring effect and structures which extend from the base of the tongue to encase the brain, further cushioning the shock.

However, it was an experiment performed in 1979 that really uncovered the woodpecker's secret. By using high-speed cameras, the team discovered that the bird not only had a very forceful strike, it was very accurate too. The brain is most easily damaged by shearing or twisting motions, but the bird's beak always hit absolutely perpendicular to the wood, minimising these harmful skewed forces. Also, the small brain means the mass is very small compared to the surface area, so that an impact can be spread out over a large area, which reduces damage locally. It is factors like this that allows the woodpecker to endure impacts of up to 1200g with apparently no side-effects whatsoever!

Although Mike Tyson no doubt has a more advanced fighting style, a better jab and more dedication to the sport, the fact that the woodpecker can take blows fifty times harder than a human and walk (well, fly) away unharmed leaves me no option but to predict the woodpecker's victory in a fair fight.

NASA: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/
New Scientist: http://www.newscientist.com/lastword/article.jsp?id=lw622
wood pecker

A bystander, who bets whilst another plays.

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

Wood"peck`er (?), n. Zool.

Any one of numerous species of scansorial birds belonging to Picus and many allied genera of the family Picidae.

⇒ These birds have the tail feathers pointed and rigid at the tip to aid in climbing, and a strong chisellike bill with which they are able to drill holes in the bark and wood of trees in search of insect larvae upon which most of the species feed. A few species feed partly upon the sap of trees (see Sap sucker, under Sap), others spend a portion of their time on the ground in search of ants and other insects.

The most common European species are the greater spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopus major), the lesser spotted woodpecker (D. minor), and the green woodpecker, or yaffle (see Yaffle).

The best-known American species are the pileated woodpecker (see under Pileated), the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), which is one of the largest known species, the red-headed woodpecker, or red-head (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), the red-bellied woodpecker (M. Carolinus) (see Chab), the superciliary woodpecker (M. superciliaris), the hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villosus), the downy woodpecker (D. pubescens), the three-toed, woodpecker (Picoides Americanus), the golden-winged woodpecker (see Flicker), and the sap suckers. See also Carpintero.

Woodpecker hornbill Zool., a black and white Asiatic hornbill (Buceros pica) which resembles a woodpecker in color.


© Webster 1913.

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