Nest Cams


Royal Society for
the Protection of Birds

Journey North



Home Adaptations Beaks Drilling
Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

Sometimes a bird needs more than a specialized beak to enable it to get the food it needs.

Woodpeckers have several adaptations that work together so they can feed on their favorite foods.

  • The woodpecker's beak is strong and sturdy, with a chisel-like tip for drilling holes in wood.
  • The woodpecker's thick, spongy skull absorbs the impact of repeated drilling. This skull fits very tightly around the woodpecker's brain to help prevent brain damage.
  • The woodpecker's eyes are protected by special membranes that prevent them from popping out of the sockets while the bird is pounding away at the wood.
  • The woodpecker's long tongue has a barbed tip and is covered in sticky saliva. These features help the bird capture and extract insects from the holes the bird drills.

Like the hummingbird, the woodpecker has another adaptation that aids feeding: a lengthened hyoid apparatus. The hyoid apparatus is a series of bones, muscle, and cartilage connected to the tongue that allows the tongue to extend to great lengths. This hyoid apparaturs wraps around the base and up over the top of the skull.

Woodpecker tongue

In some woodpecker species, the hyoid apparatus terminates near the right nostril. In others, the hyoid apparatus terminates on the top of the beak.

In some, these amazing structures wrap around the eye socket.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, which are also woodpeckers, are an exception because they don't have a long tongue and they don't eat insects.

Although they are called "sapsuckers," they don't actually suck up sap. Instead they use their short, bristly tongues to lap up sap from the short holes they drill in trees.

DID YOU KNOW? The Red-bellied Woodpecker tongue extends three times the length of its bill.


Copyright © Project BEAK — All rights reserved.  |  Credits  |  About Us  |  Contact Us