Woodpeckers’ headaches — a correction

Once in a while, a newspaper article speaks directly to a personal conversation. That happened in this week’s Science Times. Simon Winchester, who I know through his very good book on the creators of the Oxford English Dictionary and subsequent less good books, but who does not know me, answered an old question of mine: why don’t woodpeckers have terrible headaches?

Many readers of this blog will know that this matter has perplexed me for years. Some one of you may have helped me evolve what I had come to think was the answer, namely that the woodpecker’s brain is mounted on a pair of swings that allow it to move with the impact of the bird’s drilling. I don’t remember how I formulated that idea, but it has given me some comfort. Apparently, it is not what prevents headaches in the woodpecker.

Winchester reports:

“Both creatures [rams and woodpeckers] happen to have very dense skulls, especially in that rounded rear area known as the braincase, where they are built like armored cars. Crucially, their braincases are also unusually smooth inside.

The brains of most animals that are prone to head banging — these include deer and other antlered mammals, as well as various birds — are relatively small and (unlike a human’s) smooth-surfaced; and they’re bathed in only small amounts of cerebrospinal fluid, leaving little room for the brain to move and be shocked by the sudden decelerations and accelerations of their weaponized heads.

Moreover, both rams and woodpeckers are scrupulous in the precise, single-direction fashion in which they smash their heads into things, whether trees or one another: The aim is such that there’s very little side-to-side torsion exerted on the brain, none of the movement that induces whiplash injury and other kinds of damage.”

He debunks my swing solution with the idea of small, smooth brain in a tight space, but I may still wince when I hear the drilling.

  1. Ellie said:

    Fascinating! Brings new meaning to the term bird brain…:)

  2. Too bad soldiers and football players don’t have the same tight-fitting, smooth brains. We’d have fewer devastating head injuries.

    • Roy said:

      Carol, you are right about football players – I can attest having suffered many concussions while playing high school football in the early 1960s. Maybe the players who don’t suffer from concussions have smoother brains? A good research question. BTW, Quest: – who am I? Ans – I am an acquaintance of Susan’s from the plant world and enjoy reading her observations. I thought it was time to add some thoughts.

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