Woodpeckers and their role in modern protective headgear and helmets

By Tom Dennis

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

Early spring is a noisy time in the bird world, especially early in the morning.  Pay attention when you’re up early, possibly awakened by a hammering sound that, unless your neighbor is rudely installing a new roof in the pre-dawn hours, is more likely the “drumming” call of one of several woodpecker species found in the Blue Water Area.  The Red-bellied Woodpecker, like other members of the Picidae family, has a drumming call as well as vocalization calls that are unique to the species. Read on as we learn why they make these sounds and more about this woodpecker and its special design features.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are a medium-sized woodpecker with black-and-white barred upperparts, gray-white underparts with a faint red belly wash.  The head has a bright red crown and nape, offset by a gray-white face and throat. The bill is a heavy chisel-like stiletto that is black and the eyes are dark reddish-brown.  Females have similar coloration but have a gray crown and juveniles have a gray-brown head. They are 9 to 16 inches long, have a wingspan of 15 to 18 inches and weigh an average of 2.4 ounces.  The name is rather misleading since the red-belly is nearly invisible and the prominent red plumage is on the head, however, The Red-headed name is appropriately given to another stunning (and local) species of woodpecker.  Personally, I think this bird would more aptly be named the Red-necked Woodpecker but alas, I wasn’t consulted, nor born yet at its naming time for that matter!

These birds are found in the central and eastern United States from the lower Great Lakes and south to the Gulf of Mexico.  Northernmost birds sometimes migrate south but most occupy their range year-round. They prefer open and swampy woodlands and are common in parks and at feeders in winter.  Although they are not globally threatened, they require large trees for nesting and therefore they aren’t found in numbers in areas that are extensively deforested. It is also beneficial that large, dead hardwood trees be left standing since they prefer them for nesting cavities.  They will also use living trees with softer wood, such as elms, maples, and willows. Most feeding is on the trunks where they search out arthropods and visit the wells of sapsuckers for trapped insects. They are omnivores and will catch insects in flight and also feed on fruits, nuts, and seeds.  They benefit nature and man-kind locally as a major predator many insects including the invasive Emerald Ash Borer, removing up to 85 percent of borer larvae in a single tree.

They are noisy birds whose sounds include the drumming mentioned above.  They are highly attracted to resonating sounds and this activity is largely made by males to attract females and is, therefore, most prevalent in early spring.  They tap on hollow trees and in urban environments they also utilize metal gutters, metal roofs, and transformer boxes. They also drum during conflict encounters and tap to communicate with their mate and maintain pair bonding.  The drumming is unique to the species and with Red-bellied Woodpeckers, it sounds like six rapid taps. Both sexes are vocal throughout the year making rattle calls with a “churr” or “kwirr” that is again, unique to the species and more prevalent with males.

It’s evident to me that these highly specialized creatures are the product of intelligent design.  Their pecking behavior results in deceleration forces ranging from 1,200 to as great as 6,000 “g” (1,200 to 6,000 times the force of gravity.  In contrast, just a single 300 experience will leave a human concussed or result in serious brain injury.  They repeat this head bashing from 18 to 22 times per second. Scientists have studied woodpecker anatomy and are attempting to use it in micro-devices for the “advanced shock-absorbing” ability as well as for use in the design of more effective protective headgear and helmets.  The woodpecker design has been found to utilize a beak made of elastic material, special hyoid structures (muscles and tendons for support and reinforcement), a unique spongy bone located behind the beak, and a special skull bone containing spinal fluid as a dampener! My studies provide strong evidence that this didn’t happen by chance!

If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot.  Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, for meeting details and be sure to friend us. 

Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, and naturalist.

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