The Odd Tongues of Woodpeckers

Northern Flicker; Photo Credit: Deborah Rivel


When you think about woodpeckers, it is likely their tongues aren’t the first thing that comes to mind.  But their tongues can reach up to 1/3 of their body length! They are also very specialized and serve several purposes – at least one of which might really surprise you. With a tongue that long, the first question is probably…where do woodpeckers store theirs?

Interestingly, their tongues both coil around the back of their skull, and retract! And they are specialized for what and how the specific species of bird eats. For example, Flickers need a really long, sticky tongue to get deep into crevices behind the bark, but Pileated Woodpeckers have barbs on theirs that help them grab their food. Sapsuckers have brushy tongues to lap up sap. Every species has their own bespoke model of tongue which serves their needs perfectly.  And there’s more….these long tongues also help protect the birds’ brains by holding it in place when the bird is pecking rapidly. Think bird brain seat belt.

For more info and images of woodpecker tongue anatomy, check out this article from the American Bird Conservancy.