About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

What is the Lifespan of a Red-bellied Woodpecker?

I watch red bellied woodpeckers at my feeder, and in the woods working away at a tree, & wonder how much damage their brain suffers with all that banging? Sometimes when I am having a bad day, I try to remind myself that things could be worse- I could be a woodpecker banging my head against a tree, or I could be a red tailed hawk sitting in a tree at the edge of a field in a snowstorm- Bill K

The USGS Longevity Records of North American Birds determined through bird banding that the average lifespan of a Red-bellied Woodpecker is 12.10 years in the wild. That’s pretty substantial in the bird world.

Woodpeckers are tough birds. As their name suggests, they peck on the wood of trees to look for or hide tasty treats, and to build nests. In addition to drilling holes, woodpeckers will knock their heads to send sound signals.But you don’t have to worry about how much damage their brain suffers because they are well equipped!

1. FEET: They have two toes that point forward and two that point backward that allow them to cling to tree trunks. Other backyard birds have three toes forward and one in back.

2. TAIL: They have special stiff tail feathers that support their bodies as they pound. Some Wild Birds Unlimited suet feeders have tail props to make it more comfortable for the birds to feed.

3. EYE BALL: The woodpeckers close an inner eyelid a millisecond before a strike comes across the bill to prevent harm from flying debris and hold the eyeball in place.

4. NECK: Dense muscles in the neck and mouth contract just before impact, which transmits the impact past the brain and allows its whole body to help absorb the shock.

5. SKULL/BRAIN: Woodpeckers' brains sit snugly in a relatively thick skull with spongy bone to cushion the brain. There is very little cerebrospinal fluid meaning the brain won't bang around as the head moves back and forth.

6. TONGUE: The tongue is most unusual as it starts out on top of the mouth, passes through the right nostril, between the eyes, divides in two, arches over the top of the skull and around the back part of the skull passing on either side of the neck, coming forward through the lower mouth, and uniting into a single tongue with sticky barbs on the end which can extend up to 4" from the beak. The tongue is also thought to act as an additional buffer to the brain.

When they are drilling, they can peck about 15 times in a single second. All their drilling and tapping can add up to about 12,000 pecks a day. Woodpeckers have evolved to deal with pounding wood with gripping feet, "shock-absorber" head musculature, extremely long tongues, and stiff tail feathers helping them perch upright on trees. Woodpeckers are simply impressive birds.

And when they aren’t pounding their heads against wood they can be real characters and always practicing to be mighty warriors. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology writes: “Red-bellied woodpeckers have been observed playing when predators are not around. They may fly spontaneously and dodge among trees and shrubs as if evading a predator. Within-gender conflicts are common and usually involve a chase and collisions in mid-air. Red-bellied woodpeckers exhibit many threat displays, for example, raising their feathers on their neck and the crown of their head and spreading their wings and tail to appear larger to the threatening individual. In the presence of predators red-bellied woodpeckers sound alarm calls and retreat to nearby trees or shrubs.”

So maybe on your bad days you should think at least I’m not a bug on a tree with a red-belly on it.

Holy Horsefeathers!!! That sure is a great explanation about those impressive creatures. I liked ‘em before, now I will like and respect them and their super capabilities even more. Thank you again for your time & info. Bill K

Source: Eckhardt, L. and K. Kirschbaum. 2001. "Melanerpes carolinus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 26, 2010 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Melanerpes_carolinus.html