I hear this question every now and then, often with a wink and a smile. The usual answer says that woodpeckers have spongy bones and thick muscles. They have a long tongue that wraps around inside their skull, a special adaptation to muffle their brain against all that pecking. One researcher even won a so-called Ig Noble prize for discovering that woodpeckers have a third eyelid, which apparently acts like a seat belt in a car crash.
Nobody really knows if the birds get headaches or not, but if they did, you’d expect woodpeckers to stop banging on trees, which clearly isn’t happening.
On Sunday, I discovered this White-headed Woodpecker excavating a nest cavity in a three-foot-high stump north of Burns, Oregon, and had a bit of a revelation as I watched it work. Maybe woodpeckers are more delicate than we think. Instead of scything through the wood, as one might expect, this bird was tapping daintily at the stump, often chipping away chunks no larger than a grain of sand. Instead of using brute force, it was gently prying its way into the wood.
It must be a lot of work to dig a hole without any sharp teeth. Maybe these birds should hire a beaver to do the heavy excavation.
Otherwise, I had a great trip to eastern Oregon this weekend. Sunshine and 80 degrees, felt like summer!