Busy-Billed Bird

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      Most of us of the baby-boomer generation are probably quite familiar, at least superficially, with this species of bird…the woodpecker. And the sole reason for that would be, of course, an animated screwball cartoon character, the anthropomorphic acorn woodpecker… Woody Woodpecker. Woody was created in 1940 by Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, a storyboard artist with the Warner Bros. Cartoon Studio.

      Woodpeckers, wrynecks and piculets belong to the family. Picidae,  which is one of eight families in the order Piciformes.  Members of the Picidae family are found throughout the planet except for a few places like Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar and the Polar Regions. And although there are about 200 species and 30 genera within the family Picidae, they are mostly endangered due to loss of habitat, with in fact two species – the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker and the Imperial Woodpecker- having been considered extinct for decades now. Most woodpecker species thrive in forest and woodlands and the loss of these have proven to have a direct impact on their viability. Some species have begun to adapt though and can survive in treeless habitats such as rocky hillsides and deserts. But woodpeckers truly thrive and obtain their greatest diversity in tropical rain forests like those here in the Philippines.

      Woodpeckers’ species are extremely versatile and can either be solitary or highly social, and are even up to joining mixed-species feeding flocks. They can likewise be either sedentary or migratory. Woodpeckers can differ as well quite significantly in size-with the smallest one, the Bar-Breasted Piculet at seven grams and eight centimeters (3 1/4 inches): and the largest, the Great Slaty Woodpecker of Southeast Asia, at about 450 grams and 50 centimeters (20 inches). Like many bird species, the females are often the larger of the sexes. In appearance are predominantly white, brown and black, with green and red plumage and some dabs of olive green and gray in some species. Patches of bright yellow and red in the head area, which are used for signaling the opposite sex, are likewise found in many species.

      Admittedly though, most of us would be curious about how these unique species can possibly exist with the deliberate head pounding and drumming exist with they purposely punish themselves while drilling holes in trees to either forage for food or build nests. As always, Mother Nature and the wonder of evolution have found a way. Woodpecker bills are longer, stronger and sharper than most other bird species of their type. It is the regular use of the bill in pounding  that keeps it sharper, and a smaller brain size and unique orientation of the brain within the skull serve as a protection from brain damage. And how’s this for evolution: the millisecond before the woodpecker’s bill hammers the wood, a thickened nictitans membrane closes to protect the eyes from flying wood chips. The nostrils have special feathers to protect them as well. Oh I almost forgot that after hammering a hole in a tree, woodpeckers have sticky, barbed tongues for pulling out their prey. It seems evolution has left nothing out. 

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