In 2015, Harold Greeney [pictured here, horizontal] trained his camera on a mourning dove nest stitched into the crook of a cactus. As an ornithologist, Greeney studies the love lives of birds…
What happens next may upset you (and in fact, if you’re sensitive to bird-on-bird violence, you may want to stop reading here). Before the chicks even realize there’s an enemy at the gates, the woodpecker cocks its head back and starts to peck … their skulls. The Gila’s head moves like a pneumatic hammer, up and down, up and down, drilling into flesh and bone with the force of 1,000 G’s. Soon both chicks’ skulls have been opened up like coconuts. At this point, the woodpecker begins extracting brain and blood with its long, sticky tongue….
Greeney has a possible explanation as to what’s happening—but it probably won’t make you feel any better. When Gila woodpeckers get thirsty, he speculates, they crack open a couple of nestling heads like you or I might open a six-pack. “My guess is that these woodpeckers, like most birds in the Sonoran Desert, are fluid or water stressed,” he says. “This woodpecker appears to me to be clearly targeting the heads of the nestlings, and thus purposefully opening them to drink fluid—and this may be something that happens more often than is documented….
Here’s part of that video:
Other scientists have explored how woodpeckers can peck so stridently without (apparently, anyway) themselves getting headaches. The 2006 Ig Nobel Prize for biology was awarded to Ivan R. Schwab, of the University of California Davis, and the late Philip R.A. May of the University of California Los Angeles, for exploring and explaining why woodpeckers don’t get headaches. Their work is documented in these papers:
- “Cure for a Headache,” Ivan R Schwab, British Journal of Ophthalmology, vol. 86, 2002, p. 843.
- “Woodpeckers and Head Injury,” Philip R.A. May, Joaquin M. Fuster, Paul Newman and Ada Hirschman, The Lancet, vol. 307, no. 7957, February28, 1976, pp. 454-5.
- “Woodpeckers and Head Injury,” Philip R.A. May, Joaquin M. Fuster, Paul Newman and Ada Hirschman, The Lancet, vol. 307, no. 7973, June 19,1976, pp. 1347-8.