The Outrageous Length Of A Woodpecker's Tongue Reveals It To Be For Much More Than Taste Alone

Woodpeckers are among nature's strangest birds, and not just because they spend their days ramming their faces into trees. These birds, found commonly throughout the world, hide extraordinary anatomical features that make them stand out among their flying brethren. 

Woodpeckers are a highly adapted bird species with skulls, brains, tongues, feet, and tails all uniquely honed for a life of drumming bark. Every aspect of a woodpecker's physiology evolved for a life of constant pecking, from its toes to its tongue. In fact, woodpeckers have what may be the most bizarre tongues in the animal kingdom, and the organs serve a variety of life-saving functions.

It turns out there are tons of little-known facts about woodpeckers' tongues — as well as their other wild features — that make the creatures seem more like cartoon caricatures than elements of nature. Woodpeckers are as amazing as they are strange, and will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about these astounding birds. 

Photo: allspice1 / flickr / CC-BY-ND 2.0

  • Woodpecker Tongues Are A Third Of Their Entire Body Length

    Woodpecker Tongues Are A Third Of Their Entire Body Length
    Video: YouTube

    Probably the most unusual feature of woodpecker anatomy is its extraordinary tongue, which is nearly three times longer than the bird's beak. The tongue of the Eurasian green woodpecker is about 10 mm long, or roughly a third of its entire body length. In order for the tongue to fit inside the bird's mouth, it has to wrap around its entire skull. That means it goes behind the skull, over the eyes and is anchored in the woodpecker's right nostril. 

    Different species have slightly different tongues, and each is adapted to the bird's particular lifestyle. Most are extremely sticky, but some have barbs on their tongues meant to carve deep into tree bark. Other species have specialized brushes that allow them to lap up tree sap more easily. 

  • Their Tongues Act As Helmets And Insulate Their Skulls From Brain Damage

    Their Tongues Act As Helmets And Insulate Their Skulls From Brain Damage
    Photo: Phillip Henry Gosse / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    It may seem strange for a woodpecker's tongue to wrap around its skull, but this adaptation serves a far greater purpose than simple storage. The muscles of the tongue actually help insulate a woodpecker's brain from the shock of repeated pecks, decreasing its chances of developing serious brain injuries. The woodpecker's tongue basically acts as a helmet, holding everything in place and absorbing the force from each peck. A combination of tongue bones and soft tissue, known as the hyoid apparatus, allow woodpeckers to do what they do best without suffering from constant concussions. 

  • Woodpecker Skulls Are Specially Designed To Minimize Brain Injury

    Woodpecker Skulls Are Specially Designed To Minimize Brain Injury
    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / No Known Copyright Restrictions

    It's not just the tongue that protects a woodpecker's brain — its entire skull is adapted for its rough lifestyle. The section of the skull that holds the brain is enlarged, holding the brain just above the area that receives the most impact from their pecking. The bones in the front of the skull are also crucial in reducing concussions, as they work together with muscles to absorb as much shock from hammering as possible.

  • Some Woodpeckers Break The Skulls And Eat The Brains Of Other Birds

    A woodpecker's beak isn't just a tool, it can be a deadly weapon. One researcher found that out the hard way after he inadvertently caught a woodpecker double-homicide on camera while filming a pair of nesting morning doves.

    Two fledglings waiting for their mother to return to the nest were killed after a Gila woodpecker stopped by for a quick snack. The woodpecker proceeded to ram its beak into the back of the doves' skulls, just enough to crack them open and slurp up their brains. Even the researcher who captured the video in the first place reported it was gruesome and difficult to watch. This was the first time that this behavior had ever been captured on camera, and it has changed many people's perceptions of harmless, cartoon-like woodpeckers. 

  • Woodpeckers Drum Into Wood To Get Food

    Woodpeckers Drum Into Wood To Get Food
    Photo: Joshlaymon / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Woodpeckers are named after their most notable activity: pecking wood. The technical term for pecking is actually "drumming," and woodpeckers do this to tear into bark and extract food from inside. The type of food they go after varies depending on the species of woodpecker and the plants they are excavating, but insects and tree sap are two of their most common meals. Some woodpeckers use their barbed tongues to capture tiny insects hidden deep within the bark. 

  • Woodpecker Drumming Involves Incredible Physics

    Woodpecker Drumming Involves Incredible Physics
    Photo: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Woodpeckers are truly masters of their craft, striking at speeds up to seven meters per second. That's about 15 miles per hour of pure force, which is why they need so many layers of skull protection. A woodpecker can drum at a rhythm of 20 strikes per second, and they may perform up to 12,000 pecks a day. Each impact comes with a deceleration force of approximately 1200 Gs, making these unassuming, feathered fowl some of the most extreme creatures in the animal kingdom.