The birds that have mastered the tongue-twister
A crash-helmet-like skull isn’t the only impressive anatomical ace up a woodpecker’s wing! They’re also equipped with a sticky licker that can extend up to 12–15 centimetres (five to six inches) in certain species. After hammering a hole into a tree, their secret weapon is deployed to sweep the interior for bugs.
Depending on their diet, woodpecker tongues vary in shape and size, having specialised for certain food types. For instance, some are barbed for harpooning larvae, while the tongues of ‘sapsuckers’ are tipped by a brush-like feature.
One thing that remains true for all woodpeckers is that their tongues are far too big to fit in their beaks alone. Instead, the organ forks at the back of the throat and coils around the back of the brain. It’s anchored to a bone-and-cartilage structure called the hyoid horns. Contracting and relaxing muscles around this wishbone-shaped feature enables a woodpecker to shoot out and retract its tongue in the blink of an eye.