There’s more to woodpeckers than just pecking ...

Southern Africa is quite rightly known as a global birding hotspot, with an envied array of different habitat and bird species on show. And none may be more interesting than the woodpecker family. Although fairly widespread, with conspicuously loud calls and bright red heads, woodpeckers are often overlooked. But with some fascinating features and ingenious adaptations to their curious habits, these flying Morse coders deserve a second, or third, glance.

For starters, that’s precisely what they are … if you’ve ever heard the bearded woodpecker drumming on a tree stump, he is sending out an encoded message to neighbours or rivals. And considering how prominent biomimicary has been on the industrial world, is it not a fair probability that Morse code was developed after listening to woodpeckers drumming? Why not?

For seconds, during these drumming sessions, which can last for hours at quite a tempo, how do they birds prevent concussion? One solution is the ingenious design of the long barbed tongue which the woodpeckers use for probing and harpooning prey in crevices. When not in use, the tongue is withdrawn into a circular sheath wrapped around the brain case, acting like a natural shock absorber during the hectic Morse code conversations.

Thirdly, another interesting feature is a hinged forehead, which reduces the force on the brain by softening and absorbing the impact of each tap. And considering the rapidity and volume of a bearded woodpecker’s tapping, which can be heard by people for over a kilometre away, these features are possibly life saving adaptations!

Fourthly, their feet and tails. Woodpeckers have two back and two forward facing toes on their feet, a relatively unusual feature in birds. This, along with a stiff bristly tail help anchor and pivot the body against the tree trunk when drumming, allowing for the necessary leverage to go to work.

There you go … four good reasons (there are more but we have limited space here) why there is more to woodpeckers than pecking wood. Have a second glance next time!

And happy birding on safari with us!

Please view our suggested African Safaris for 10 Southern & East African countries, or read further articles on African Safaris & Conservation

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