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Why don’t woodpeckers get head aches?

Why don’t woodpeckers get head aches?
Jack Lochray from Hampshire (age 5-14)


This question results from having humanised the woodpecker. It really means that if I were banging my head against a tree I would expect pain and a headache, not to mention a busted mouth, so how come the woodpecker can do it without pain? Firstly, the concept of pain felt by humans is difficult to transfer to other species including birds. We don’t know what they feel and what intensity it is. Secondly the woodpecker has evolved with the best design to hammer away at trees with its beak. Hence it has survived whereas all its rivals who evolved with features not as adept at doing it – including the ones who had to stop before they had uncovered the food they were seeking.

John Kilcoyne, scientist behind Brainiac LIVE


2 Responses

  1. They’re designed for this. Woodpeckers have specially built or reinforced thick skulls, neck and shock absorbing beak structures to prevent brain damage happening. (They also have relatively small, smooth, well packed brains without too much spinal fluid to transmit sound waves). Deer and some of the larger hooved animals which bash and lock horns repeatedly in the mating or rutting season have something similar in terms of skull and padding.

    Early designs of woodpecker obviously suffered lots of headaches and probably didn’t get to breed, especially as the drumming is partly a mating call.

    If you tried the same, your brain would bounce around inside your skull like it does in a car crash or boxing match. Head banging music fans often move the head from side to side as well which doesn’t help. (Woodpeckers have very precise downward head movements like a nail or pile driver.)
    Fire a shotgun badly or catch a cricket ball dead (ouch!) instead of in a swing movement or stand behind cannon or artillery piece and you’ll understand how the backward recoil action needs to be absorbed through movement and control.
    Despite the padding and protective helmets, American soccer players and rugby players often end up with neck and back injuries. Don’t try any of this at home!

    Mark Norris, Newquay Zoo

  2. There was an award in the 2006 Ig Nobels ceremony to the writers of a paper on this topic – Reference – “Woodpeckers and Head Injury,” Philip R.A. May, Joaquin M. Fuster, Paul Newman and Ada Hirschman, Lancet, vol. 307, no. 7957, February 28, 1976, pp. 454-5.

    I don’t have access to the full paper but I shall see if I can get it.

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