How Do Woodpeckers Use Their Tongues?
Learn all about a woodpecker tongue and the unique features it has to capture insects. Also find out how a woodpecker skull protects its brain.
“I watched a red-bellied woodpecker stick its tongue out over and over. What was it doing?” asks Kimberly Miskiewicz of Raleigh, North Carolina.
Red-bellied woodpeckers use their incredibly long tongues to forage for insects. Their tongues extend nearly 2 inches beyond the tip of their bills. They stick their long tongues into tree cavities and crevices to probe for insects and grubs to eat.
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A woodpecker tongue is perfectly designed for scooping insects out of trees. It can be covered in a sticky fluid that helps capture bugs. The end of their tongue is also barbed to allow them to latch on to food. This makes retrieving insects a breeze for woodpeckers.
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Sometimes woodpeckers even use their tongues to drink syrupy sugar water from hummingbird feeders. Considering all the places they use their amazing tongues for feeding, they can get messy in a hurry. The bird you watched, sticking its tongue out repeatedly, was probably just cleaning its tongue after foraging for food.
Sapsuckers have an extra advantage: Hairlike structures on their short tongues help these birds suck sticky, insect-laden sap from trees.
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You’d think repeatedly slamming their heads into hard surfaces would cause brain damage. Turns out woodpeckers have a special skull structure that protects their brains from the impact of hammering and pecking. Woodpeckers have a unique bone in their skulls that wraps around their brain. It works like a seat belt, protecting their tiny brains from damage.
Next, learn why woodpeckers peck and how to stop it.