The Pileated Woodpecker

Not only do these woodpeckers have remarkable adaptations for excavating wood, they also have acute hearing that allows them to pick up the telltale sounds of ants scurrying within trees.

January 30, 2016 | | Notes from the Wild

Woodpeckers have remarkably strong beaks that are often compared to chisels because of their shape and their primary purpose – excavating holes in wood. A more apt comparison might be the pickaxe. The pounding stroke of a woodpecker from the neck up is like the motion of a swinging pickaxe and the beak is analogous to the business end of the axe.

Woodpeckers use these organic pickaxes to great effect. The largest of our woodpeckers, the pileated, can excavate cavities that could swallow big French baguettes. The wood needn’t necessarily be punky. A determined pileated can penetrate hard, healthy timber.

All this pounding would quickly concuss the brains of most other animals. But woodpeckers have evolved bone structure and shock absorption that cushions their brains very effectively.

Biomimicry

So effective, in fact, that researchers in the field of biomimicry are now attempting to use woodpecker-head inspired design to make better helmets for soldiers and football players. And coming soon to a sporting goods store near you may be a bicycle helmet modelled after a woodpecker’s skull.

It is fair to wonder what all the pounding achieves for a pileated woodpecker. The energy expenditure is surely immense. So the reward must be commensurate. It is: carpenter ants and their plump, protein-rich larvae.

Carpenter ants carve elaborate galleries inside trees, creating cozy accommodation for their colonies. In these woody labyrinths the ants enjoy protection from the elements and from predators – except, of course, from the pickaxe-wielding pileated woodpeckers.

Not only do these woodpeckers have remarkable adaptations for excavating wood, they also have acute hearing that allows them to pick up the telltale sounds of ants scurrying within trees.

Imagine the havoc inside these ant colonies when a pileated woodpecker comes a-knocking!

IanJarvieTwo pileated woodpecker female pileated woodpecker excavations on white pine pileated woodpecker excavation pileated woodpecker excavation two pileated woodpecker excavation in cedar
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Pileated woodpecker in a tree. Photo by Ian Jarvie.

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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