For those worthy readers of the Star, and especially the Weekend Star’s Sasa pull out, where this column runs weekly, we appreciate your contributions and request for clarification on various issues that you read on bushman adventures. Like those who wanted to know for sure whether the woodpecker actually taps on wood 18 times a second or per minute, the answer is 18 times per second. Some research materials may put it at 16 to 18 drumming per second.
But the woodpecker’s tongue is the most extraordinary tool. It is a very long tongue. Sometimes it is four times longer than the beak. It can easily be flicked in and out of the mouth like the tongue of a snake. The tip of the tongue has barbs, like small fish hooks. When food is found and a little hole is drilled where the insects are hiding, the tongue is released from the hood and inserted into the hole. The insects or the worms will stick on the tongue and the bird will pull in the catch and eat. In some species, the tip of the tongue contains some sticky substances that will bait and catch ants.
When not in use, the tongue serves another very important function. It is curled at the back of the head and placed between the skull and the skin. In this position, when the bird is busy drumming on a tree, the brain is cushioned from excessive vibrations that could send the bird into concussion. When the woodpecker is in action at full speed, one would imagine that the particles flying around it from the works would get into the eyes and blind the bird. But nature has a cure for everything. The woodpecker, like most birds, has what we call a nictitating membrane in their eyes. This is the same membrane some fish possesses. It is a transparent membrane that covers the eye of the bird when it needs to protect the inner lens from accidental damage. Most raptors would use this method when hunting, especially some milliseconds just before the catch. The same membrane is used by the woodpecker when drilling into trees and particles fly all over. The eye is protected and the bird can still see what it is doing, albeit a little blurry vision.
Unlike most forest birds, woodpeckers do not sing. But they do have a call, or a system of communication which is as effective as any other bird’s song or call. The call may be a rattling or cackling sound. What is most common in woodpeckers’ communication is the drumming or tapping. Just like when it is looking for food, the same sound is used to communicate with its kind. The difference is the details.
The frequency and the rapidness of the taps differentiate between a bird looking for food, and one that is communicating. When the woodpecker drums rapidly on a resonant branch, it is a warning to another bird encroaching on a territory already occupied. A trespass warning. Lowering the beats and putting a pause in between drumming, may be a call to attract a mate. The caller has to choose the tree to use carefully. The sound has to resonate loudly enough to be heard from a distance. It is not strange to find a woodpecker who has decided to try drumming something else rather than a tree in order to increase the volume of the call. I saw one that tried to use a tin can. The sound was so loud that the woodpecker was himself surprised and flew away.
Like most birds, it is the male woodpecker that has the mandate to seek where to build a nest. When the male has investigated and found a likely place to build a home, he calls his mate by drumming, then gently begins tapping at the exact location. The female inspects it by making few taps herself. If she does not join the male in tapping, then the male has to look at another location. If she is interested, she begins tapping with him. Happy, the male starts chipping wildly and very fast, to impress the female. She does not try to match the male’s speed, but will continue with her slaw tapping and soon the chips will be flying all over.
With such unique adaptations, the woodpeckers live a relatively more comfortable and easier life than other birds. So does the bushman.