Why Doesn’t a Woodpecker Get a Headache?

We’ve all been there before.  You had a late night (no judgements), want to sleep in, but something is hammering … hammering … HAMMERING away at your house, or a nearby tree.  That something, is most likely a woodpecker and unlike you, Woody doesn’t have a headache.  But, why is that exactly?  We did some research, and found some interesting facts about woodpeckers, and why they aren’t hammering their own brain into mush.

A combination of biological factors contributes to this amazing feat:

  1. Brain muscles:  Their brain is encapsulated in strong muscles that preempt an impact and protect the brain from “bouncing” around.  Unlike human/primate brains, muscles and a tightly confined space protect the woodpecker’s brain from injury.  Concussions in humans occur when the brain “shakes” or comes in contact with the skull.  Normally, the fluid around a human  brain acts as a cushion, but in severe impacts this fluid is not enough.  Enter the crazy strong, “brain muscles” of the woodpecker and their ability to tense and protect the brain on every impact.
  2. Thick skull:  Tell another person they have a “thick skull” and you might get a dirty look.  But for woodpeckers, this is an asset and another biological advantage when it comes to protecting their head and brain.  Their skull is made up of plate-like spongy bone, that on a microscopic level has a tighter mesh of trabeculae than other birds.
  3. Squishy beak:  Researchers in China looked at the woodpecker’s beak under the microscope and found rod structures that they theorize could allow the beak to deform on each impact, further protecting the skull/brain.
  4. Uneven beak:  Another factor in reducing the stress on the brain are the uneven (in lenth) upper beak, and lower beak.  Instead of the entire beak (upper/lower) hitting at one time, one beak hits first, reducing the transfer of energy to their skull.
  5. Third eyelid:  Not related to headaches, but a third eyelid, called “nictitating membrane” keeps the woodpecker’s eyes from popping out of their skull.  You read that right, without it their eyeballs might fly out of their skull and onto the tree trunk, or your cedar siding.

Quick Woodpecker Facts:

  1. Woodpeckers can peck at 20 times per second.
  2. Each peck, exerts 1000 times the force of gravity.

Further Woodpecker Reading:

  1. Why Do Woodpeckers Resist Head Impact Injury: A Biomechanical Investigation

Woodpecker Videos:

Here are some awesomely entertaining slow motion of woodpeckers, doing their thing:

If a GIF is more your style.

Lastly, a woodpecker post wouldn’t be complete without a little Woody Woodpecker from 1941, enjoy:


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