According to the International Ornithological Committee, there are 240 different species of woodpeckers. They are spread worldwide except for Australia, New Guinea, Madagascar, and New Zealand. This means you can almost go anywhere on holiday and search for the local woodpeckers – how wonderful!
Woodpeckers have fascinated me since my first birding outing over 40 years ago. I am still learning from these incredible birds. Their way of communication and their technique for scrambling upside down and capturing prey is so interesting. Their way of nest-building makes this species fascinating to learn more about.
When sighting a woodpecker, you notice their wings, stiffened tails, short, solid and zygodactyl feet shape (two toes facing forward and two facing backwards), and substantial bills.
What you do not notice, however, are their long tongues that zip in and out of their mouths so quickly that you never really get to see them. The tongues of the woodpecker are unique, and in this article, we find out the importance and ingenuity of the woodpecker’s tongue design.
No birds other than woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and sunbirds have tongues that extend past the ends of their bills.
Although a few woodpeckers look for their meals on the ground (Ground Woodpecker), they have the same tongue design.
Why is the tongue essential?
The tongues of woodpeckers are essential for many reasons. They play crucial roles in:
|The woodpecker’s tongues are used for feeling, grabbing, and swallowing their meals. Their salivary glands are situated at the base of their tongue. Like humans, these glands produce saliva, which helps moisten their food, making it easy to swallow. The saliva helps break down the food before it enters the stomach.
|The tongue movements help propel their food from outside their bills down to their oesophagus, facilitating swallowing.
|Calling and songs
|The birds do not vocalise in the same way as humans, as they have a specialised voice box called the syrinx, which gives them unique calls. The tongue shapes and modulates their calls and songs by changing the airflow and resonance.
|Cooling the body
|Have you seen woodpeckers sitting on a hot day with their tongues hanging outside the sides of their bills? They do this to help cool down their inner temperature by sending more blood through to the tongue, so with the mouth open and tongue out; woodpeckers get to cool down.
|Protection of the brain
|The woodpeckers hammer and dig against the barks of trees a lot in a day. They do this to find food or create hollowed-out nests. With all this hammering, the woodpecker’s brain needs protection against all that vibration. The tongue wraps around the rear of the skull. The woodpeckers also have spongy bone at the rear. With these two in place, they act as shock absorbers for their brains.
|Preening their feathers
|They always use their tongues to remove dirt and grit from their feathers.
|Cleaning their bills and tongues
|Keep their bills clean and sharp. This is just a form of hygiene
|Climbing and clinging to surfaces
|The woodpeckers use their tongues to help climb and cling to branches. This does prove to be a disaster sometimes, as scientists have found dead woodpeckers with their tongues out, stuck to branches, holes in trees and sometimes even nets.
|The hyoid bone, to which their tongues are attached, creates a space between their tongues and the roofs of their mouths so that the woodpeckers can breathe
Where is the tongue situated?
The woodpecker’s tongues are attached to the Hyoid Apparatus, which are not linked to any bones but are joined by muscles and cartilages. These mechanisms support their tongues and throats.
They start at the tips of the bills, wrap around their skulls, and are attached near the right nostrils of the woodpecker. The woodpeckers’ hyoid apparatuses are much longer than ordinary birds, allowing them longer tongues.
Which Woodpecker has the longest tongue?
The tongue of the woodpecker is incredibly long. Well, it depends on the species of woodpecker we are talking about, but on average, they are about a third of the bird’s length.
The Northern Flicker’s tongue has been measured at approximately 13 cm in northern America. On the other hand, the Speckled Piculet has one of the shortest tongues of the woodpeckers.
Why do the woodpeckers need long tongues?
Woodpeckers mainly feed on insects like ants and termites, harbouring beneath the bark of trees and branches. They need long tongues to reach these insects and their larvae after they have chiselled the bark away. Sometimes, the woodpeckers also enjoy tasting the sap of trees.
Ground-dwelling woodpeckers will also feast like the other woodpecker species, but their main meals will come from ground surface litter layers. They will use their bills to move rocks and their tongues to capture prey.
How do these tongues capture their prey?
The woodpeckers dart their tongues under the bark, and as they are covered with sticky mucus, they can capture their prey. This mucus is so effective it is known to be capable of holding food equivalent to the woodpeckers’ weight. They also have reverse-facing barbs, so they can bring insects back when the tongue retracts.
How do these tongues work?
The hyoid apparatus, which is connected to the hyoid bone, helps control the movement of the tongue.
The woodpecker also has muscles around the skull that push this hyoid apparatus towards the bill, allowing the tongue to extend past the bill.
Other birds with unique tongues
Unique tongues are familiar to the avian species group. Here are just a few examples.
- Muscular tongues (Parrots) – Parrots have pinkish, fleshy, and very muscular tongues. Most of the tongues of this group have keratin tips at the end. The tongue design allows these birds to grip and manoeuvre their food in their mouths better and hold it tightly.
- Grooved design (Vultures and Eagles) – The vultures do not have much time to feed at kills and are often chased from their food source soon after landing. To help adapt to this, they have a groove running through the centre of their tongues, which allows for bone marrow to be sucked up and food to be channelled quickly into their crops.
- Serrated tongues (Penguins, Geese, and Mergansers) – This group have serrated-edged tongues which help them grip slippery fish.
- Nectarine tongues (Hummingbirds and Sunbirds) – These birds have long tubular tongues so they can suck nectar up from flowers.
- Piston-type (Pigeons and Flamingos) – They have a tube-like tongue which helps them suck water into their stomachs without having to bend their heads backwards. This piston-like movement creates a pressure drop, which allows for this sucking mechanism.
Many other birds have a hardened tip to their tongue. This stretches and contracts, helping to stop seeds from falling off their tongues.
Fun facts and trivia about woodpeckers
- Not all woodpeckers use their tongues to catch their prey. The Acorn Woodpecker grabs acorns from trees and stashes them in recently made holes in the tree to feed on later.
- The Northern Flickers, as mentioned earlier, have the longest tongues, which are generally flatter than those of other woodpecker species. They use their extended tongues to probe underground for ant nests or other prey.
Woodpeckers have terrific tongues that will help them survive and succeed in their ever-diminishing environments. They use them to perform essential functions such as catching their prey, tasting, swallowing, helping with their calls, and even holding on.
So next time you see a woodpecker in your area, don’t just look for the obvious but look closer and admire them for their adaption and diversity.