Despite being quite a noisy little chap, the woodpecker is not always easy to find, and even the sound of its percussive pecking at the bark of a tree can seem to blend into the other sounds that make up the wonderful soundtrack to a walk in the forest, unless you open your ears and listen…
There are over two hundred woodpecker species in the world and, out of those, three are native to the UK. Hotel Meudon is lucky enough to host all three of these species, which are the Great Spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos Major), the Green woodpecker (Picus Viridis), and the more elusive Lesser Spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos Minor). These birds vary in size, with the Lesser Spotted being the smallest of the three. Although they are known for having bold, striking patterns, spotting them can be quite a challenge as they enjoy hiding on the less exposed side of a tree’s trunk. On a springtime stroll through the stunning grounds here at Hotel Meudon, if you listen and filter it from the sound of other birdlife coming from the trees, you can often hear their distinctive drumming sound echoing through the valley.
Why all the pecking?
Woodpeckers use their beak to tap into hollow wood, creating a fast, repetitive and unique drumming sound. This drumming has multiple functions, including foraging for small insects hidden beneath the bark, producing territorial signals to warn off competitors, and creating nest cavities in the trunks of trees. This last function in particular is extremely important for other bird species such as nuthatches, wrens and creepers, who are unable to make these nest cavities themselves. Once the woodpecker has left this nest, these species will utilise the space for raising their own young!
How do they do it?
The effort and force required to hammer away at a hard surface for such lengths of time is astounding, and the mechanisms behind the drum of a woodpecker have amazed researchers and bird enthusiasts for a long time. Woodpeckers can peck between 10-40 times per second, whilst absorbing a force that is 1,200 times the force of gravity! With all those explosive, potentially deadly stresses and strains being created in their tiny bodies, these birds require pretty spectacular adaptations to avoid damage.
Firstly, the brain of a woodpecker is around the size of a pea and has a particular orientation within the skull, which helps to reduce contact between the skull and brain and minimise damage. Woodpeckers also tap into the wood at a 90-degree angle which reduces the rotational forces acting upon the brain and stops the bird from getting a concussion. One of the more weird and unique adaptations of the woodpecker is its tongue. This muscle is extremely long, which results in the base of the tongue wrapping around the brain. Studies have suggested that this helps to protect and cushion the brain when drumming. A bad headache is not the only thing woodpeckers must avoid when drumming, as bark shrapnel can cause considerable damage. Therefore, just before a woodpecker starts tapping, it will close its eyes and constrict its nostril to protect the more sensitive areas on its head.
These birds can often be heard drumming from February, with activity peaking in March and early April, heralding the arrival of springtime. What is not always appreciated is just how stunning these little creatures are to look at, and should your patience be rewarded with a glimpse of one of these shy birds, you will be dazzled by their beautiful colouring. So, the next time you are visiting Meudon Gardens, make sure to keep an eye, and an ear, out for these incredible birds that defy the laws of physics every day. They are a beautiful part of the rich tapestry of flora and fauna that inhabit this wonderful space…