How Can a Woodpecker’s Brain Survive the Hammering?

How Can a Woodpecker’s Brain Survive the Hammering? - Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker

We live in Michigan with massive numbers of trees all around, allowing us to watch various wildlife. The design that allows our woods to survive involves many animals that plant seeds, prune plants, and control insect populations. One of the leading players in the control of insects is our Michigan woodpeckers. That raises the question, “How can a woodpecker’s brain survive the hammering?”

We have a variety of woodpeckers, but the most interesting to me are the pileated woodpeckers and flickers. These birds not only peck at trees removing insects that could damage the plants, but they also use their pecking to mark territories. One woodpecker hammers on the flashing of the chimney that vents our furnace. The sound is so loud that it wakes me up in the morning. But it also sends a territorial message to all other woodpeckers in the area.

The frequency of the hammering of woodpeckers is around 20 hits a second. Their heads move so fast it is hard to see the motion with the naked eye, and even a photograph at a high shutter speed shows only a blur of the woodpecker’s head. So, the big question is, “How can a woodpecker’s brain survive the hammering?”

The textbooks say that a spongy bone in the woodpecker’s skull acts as a shock absorber to protect the brain. However, recent research has shown that isn’t the case. Not only does a dissection of the woodpecker’s head not show any such bone structure, but high-speed video of three different species of woodpeckers shows that the bird’s brain decelerates at the same rate as the beak. There is no cushion for the bird’s brain.

So that does not answer the question, “How can a woodpecker’s brain survive the hammering?” The answer seems to be in the design of the bird’s brain, not in the area that surrounds the brain. Dr. Sam Van Wassenbergh at the University of Antwerp says that the woodpecker’s brain is so small and of such light-weight construction that the pecking does not generate enough pressure to damage it.

The problem with that explanation is that the woodpecker has the same functions as all other birds and does not show symptoms of a deficient brain. We also know from human studies that brain size is not directly related to intelligence. The design of a woodpecker’s brain to enable it to hammer on trees and other objects (such as chimney flashing) is an example of engineering design. Scientists need to do more research to fully understand the design God put into these birds and perhaps learn what practical applications it might have for us.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: The Week for August 5, 2022, page 21.