Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Do woodpeckers get headaches? And if not, why not?

So early this morning I am still under the covers trying to understand why or how it was that in my dream CSB and I have become Native American activists named Coconut and Chickle, and just outside the woodpeckers are busy in the trees. Busy jackhammering at the trunks of black walnut trees and the catalpa tree and the locust trees just outside our window. And because it is still very early, I can ponder what it might be like to perch oneself on the side of a tree and rapidly, very rapidly, hammer away at the wood, using one’s head and beak as the jackhammer. As soon as I consider this, I recognize how pleasant it is to have my head unmoving on the pillow. Poor woodpeckers. Do woodpeckers get headaches? How could they not? They can, and do, repeatedly peck at the tree at the ridiculously high rate of 10,000 pecks/meters per seconds squared. (10,000 m/s2 – I am not really sure what this means.)
Yet they don’t get headaches, or at any rate they don’t complain about headaches, because their physiology has evolved to deal with this very problem.
Evolution has wisely given woodpeckers small brains nestled inside their skulls in such a way as to “maximize area of contact between the brain and skull”. Their eyeballs and nostrils are likewise protected from the potential damage of flying wood chips: the eyeballs with a nictitating membrane, like a transparent third eyelid, that closes mere milliseconds before the impact of beak on bark, and their tiny nostrils with tiny feathers covering the aperture.

If this is not enough about woodpeckers to enliven your day, you may also want to know that they all have zygodactyl feet; this means that of their four toes, the first and last face backward, while the two middle ones face forward. This arrangement is useful for climbing straight up a tree; it also resembles the finger arrangement used in Alternate Nostril Breathing – Nadi Shodhan Pranayama - in my yoga class that is so helpful with meditation.

What passes through the small brain of the woodpecker as he hammers away at that dizzying rate? Or does he meditate?

Pictures: Woodpecker from ANB sketch from

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