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.

Woodpecker in a Tree Photo

Woodpecker in a Tree Photo

It is safe to say that anybody who has seen a woodpecker in action has been amazed at the strength and speed they employ to tap on tree trunks. What is more, we often scan the trees when hearing its tapping sound, hoping to spot its maker.

Certainly, the woodpecker is a sight to see –not only because of its habits but also for its plumage and alluring looks. It is widely known for its red crest, but there are also woodpecker species with shades of brown and gold.

The head’s intense movement has been studied by biologists, and the results show that both its physical resilience to the habit of making holes in tree trunks and its diet directly relate to its tongue. Below we tell you about this surprising finding and other peculiar characteristics of this animal:

There are over 300 woodpecker species distributed around the world, generally in wooded areas with tall and medium-sized trees. Furthermore, woodpeckers do not have the need to migrate, as they are able to adapt easily to summer and winter.

Species include:

  • Wrynecks
  • Sapsuckers
  • Woodpeckers (Picatroncos)
  • Piculets (Carpinteritos)
  • Piculets (Sasias)
  • Red-cockaded woodpeckers

Their size ranges from 15 cm to 35 cm depending on the species. However, in North America and Europe, they can exceed these measures, as they find there the perfect habitat to develop. In line with the mechanisms explained by the one and only Charles Darwin, the woodpecker’s anatomy is a direct consequence of its diet. Other common factors influence their bodies as well, such as competition, weather and predators.

They are omnivores, so they feed on insects, fruit and tree sap by making 10-15 cm holes in trees. For this task, the woodpecker’s tongue is extremely long: It extends from the nostrils, over the eyes, and coils behind the skull before reaching the mouth.

Woodpecker's Tonge

Woodpecker's Tonge

At the throat level, the tongue branches off into a “Y”, allowing it to surround the bones of the spinal column There is no doubt that its anatomy is outstanding, worthy of being amongst the top designs in nature.

This unusual tongue allows them to reach for food found deep inside tree trunks. Unlike most birds, the woodpecker can stretch out its tongue completely and then pull it back once it grabbed an insect, larva or tree sap.

In addition to being long, the woodpeckers’ tongues are narrow and have spines with which they catch insects. They also produce sticky saliva to use their tongues as rakes by extending them completely.

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There is a fascinating explanation for their anatomy in relation to the amazing knocking by which they make holes in trees. Tapping on trunks and moving aside wood chips are not only for the purpose of searching for food but also to drill holes for nests. To do this, the woodpecker's head taps with a force 1,000 times stronger than the force of gravity and can do it 12,000 times a day, without suffering any harm.

Absorbing such impact is possible thanks to several factors:

  • Chisel-like beak for piercing wood
  • Little hollow space in the skull preventing the brain from rocking
  • Bone structure enabling deformation resulting from impact
  • Energy concentrated in the lower beak to stir the impact away from the cranial cavity

In Costa Rica, mainly two species can be observed: Hoffmann’s Woodpecker, found in the Nicoya Peninsula, and the ladder-backed woodpecker, the largest in the country measuring 34 cm. In addition, the Pale-billed Woodpecker has also been observed.

In the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park birding tour you will be able to watch birds such as the incredible woodpeckers and many more.