Marvel of nature: A woodpecker’s tongue

By Brian Plasters - Managing Editor, ODNR Division of Wildlife

Woodpeckers are among the most visible birds in Ohio. Because of their large size and distinctive behavior, they are some of the first birds we learn to identify as children. That quick, repetitive noise you hear from the woods is called drumming, the result of a woodpecker rapidly slamming its bill into a tree to advertise its territory. Tree trunks are scaled with ease, aided by unique feet that are great for grasping.

One of the most weird and wild traits shared by woodpeckers involves an abnormally long and mobile tongue. A woodpecker wields its tongue to dislodge insects burrowed under the bark or hiding in the crevices of a tree. Favorite foods include ants and beetles. Woodpeckers are mostly considered insectivorous, although they switch to seeds or nuts when insects are scarce.

What makes the woodpecker’s tongue so memorable? In these birds, the tongue begins in muscle tissue that is coiled around one of the woodpecker’s eyes (or begins in the lower mandible). The tongue wraps to the back of the bird’s head and then exits through the bill. Proportionally large compared to the bird’s size, the tongue extends up to 5 inches past the tip of the bill in some species (for reference, a red-bellied woodpecker is about 9¼ inches long). The tongue is wrapped up in a set of bones and muscles called a hyoid apparatus. The apparatus gives the woodpecker the ability to extend, suspend, and move the tongue.

That’s not all. To give the woodpecker even more advantage when hunting for food, the end of the bird’s tongue is barbed for harpooning insects. The barbs face back toward the woodpecker to keep prey from dislodging, similar to a fish hook. Further, the tongue is sticky so prey cannot wiggle free. An insect has no chance to escape once it is speared. Ohio has seven native woodpecker species, and each has its own unique habitat and food requirements. Read on for more information about Ohio’s woodpeckers.

Downy woodpecker: The smallest woodpecker in Ohio is also one of the most common. It feeds primarily on insects, but will also eat seeds, fruit, and sap. It is similar in appearance to the hairy woodpecker, but is noticeably smaller. The male has a small red patch on the back of its head that is missing in the female.

Hairy woodpecker: Look for this bird’s white underbelly and long bill. It is a common sight in Ohio, preferring large woodlots and mature forest. As such, the population density is higher in southern and eastern Ohio. Just as in the downy woodpecker, only the male has a small red patch on its head.

Northern flicker: The yellow feathers of a flicker’s underwing make it instantly recognizable. Those vivid feathers are flashed at rivals and potential mates during the breeding season. The species is one of the few woodpeckers that forages directly on the ground, searching for ants. It is also called a yellowhammer or yellow-shafted flicker.

Pileated woodpecker: The largest woodpecker in Ohio has a distinctive red crest and measures 16 inches long with a 29-inch wingspan. It is a loud bird that prefers mature woodlands. This woodpecker turns decaying logs and tree stumps inside-out with its heavy bill while searching for ants and beetles.

Red-bellied woodpecker: A common sight on backyard feeders during the winter, this large woodpecker is found in many Ohio habitats. Although usually difficult to see, the pinkish wash on its belly provides its name. It has a broad diet that includes eggs, nestling birds, amphibians, and reptiles.

Red-headed woodpecker: Besides a completely red head, this striking bird has large white patches on its wings. Insects are the main food items during the summer. It caches acorns and beech nuts, and may eat small mammals, fish, and reptiles to sustain it through the winter. It is found in open areas bordered by woodlands.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker: The sapsucker drills neatly-aligned holes in a live tree, from which it feeds on the sap and the insects attracted to it. Its name comes from its yellowish belly feathers, but like most other woodpeckers it also has patches of red on its head. Breeding sapsuckers are common in Ashtabula and Lake counties, and can be seen throughout Ohio during migration.

Brian Plasters is the managing editor for ODNR Division of Wildlife. This article originally published in the Winter Edition 2019 Wild Ohio Magazine.

By Brian Plasters

Managing Editor, ODNR Division of Wildlife