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.

pileated woodpecker tongueCourtesy Sharon Herrington
A pileated woodpecker flicks its tongue to eat insects

Woodpecker Tongue

“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.

Check out the 4 best foods for attracting woodpeckers.

northern flicker on suet feederCourtesy Ron Lemaster
Northern flickers’ tongues are long enough to get the seeds from a caged feeder

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.

woodpecker tongueCourtesy Peggy Booth
Woodpecker drinking from a hummingbird feeder

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.

Learn how to tell the difference: downy vs hairy woodpeckers.

Woodpecker Brain

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.

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Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.