Woodpeckers fill a special niche in the ecological system of the world by helping to protect trees from insect pests. Of course, woodpeckers are birds, but they require some design features other birds don’t have in order to fit them for a special purpose. Woodpeckers are designed to be able to survive by eating insects in trees.
The first important design feature of a woodpecker is the equipment needed for drilling in wood. This involves a strong, straight, chisel-like bill with a hard tip. It serves as a combination hammer, chisel and crowbar to reach insects under the bark of the tree. The woodpecker also has special feathers to cover the nostrils to keep dust and woodchips from getting into the nasal passages. Other necessary features are a thick skull to protect the brain, strong head and neck muscles to give the required pounding force, and a broad base bill to spread the shock of pounding. Woodpeckers have all of those special features.
A second characteristic of a woodpecker is the equipment necessary to cling to bark on the vertical trunk of the tree while pounding on the tree with tremendous force. For this they have very short legs with long curved toes and sharp claws. Most birds have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back, but woodpeckers have two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward so they can firmly cling to the side of the tree. But there also has to be something to counter-balance the force of the pounding so that they don’t knock themselves over backwards. What they have is a long, stiff tail to use as a brace and strong muscles to manipulate the tail. But birds periodically loose their feathers when they molt. So how can the woodpecker survive and get food without those tail feathers to brace itself? That problem is covered too. The woodpecker’s molting system saves a central pair of tail feathers as the last to be molted so that the bird’s ability to secure food is never lost.
A third essential feature of a woodpecker is a way to reach those insects inside the tunnel systems in the tree. For this they have extremely long, extensible tongues that allow them to reach in and lick out their prey. The tongue can be up to 4 inches long so long that it can reach far into the tree without having to drill new holes. Some woodpeckers have barbs at the tip of the tongue which enable them to spear insects while others secrete a solution that makes the tongue very sticky. Of course, the woodpecker needs a place to keep this very long tongue while not using it to catch insects. For that purpose the tongue is withdrawn into a special sheath that wraps around the bird’s skull.
In all of these ways, woodpeckers are equipped to help protect trees. But they also fill another need for other birds. Woodpeckers are referred to as a core species because their existence is a requirement for the existence of many other birds. Woodpeckers make their nests by drilling holes in trees, but they don’t re-use their holes. Woodpeckers live from 4 to 11 years and they drill new nests each year. The old ones are used by many small birds, including bluebirds, wrens, chickadees and small owls. So the woodpeckers are nature’s woodworkers building wooden homes for many other birds, and even squirrels.
All of the special characteristics of woodpeckers are evidence of design for an animal to fill a very particular ecological niche. Woodpeckers are another example of evidence for design. The Designer has prepared a beautiful world with an incredible number of highly complex systems all working together.
Natural History, June 1990, pages 30-34
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