WoodpeckerTongue

One of the most popular words in the expressive Yiddish language is the word “nudnik.” Even more popular than the word are the examples of the word. One classic nudnikis someone who, when innocently asked, “How are you?” spends the next half-hour telling you. Another species of nudnikis someone who calls you at 2am and asks, “Did I wake you?” Another favorite question from this rare breed is: “Why is it that the hallah knife can cut through the hallah, but hallah can never cut through the knife?”

In truth, although this type of question drives people crazy, it is quite legitimate. If you never observe simple phenomena, you will never discern wisdom and design in creation. Similarly, if you do not have the type of mind that asks irritating questions, you will never invent anything.

Many inventions appear so simple that we take them for granted. For example, before there were zippers, buttons, or other fasteners, people fastened their clothes with large pins. But pins caused problems. Their sharp points were dangerous, and could easily slip out and cause injury. The solution? Go and invent something!

Listen to an interesting story. Walter Hunt was an American who thought up many inventions, which he usually patented. Since a patent application normally included drawings, and Mr. Hunt could not draw, he had to employ the services of an artist, to whom he was usually in debt. The artist agreed to wipe out the debts if Walter Hunt would give him sole rights to whatever he could make out of a length of old wire. Hunt came up with the safety pin, and the artist became a rich man!

Inventions may seem simple, once they have been invented. But analyze any invention that you like, from a safety pin to a zipper (first patented in 1893), and perforce you will admit that without a great deal of inquisitiveness coupled with intelligence, it would never have seen the light of day. In that case, you will appreciate the following problem. Sometimes you need to hang a picture on the wall, and you cannot find the hammer, let alone nails, and your neighbor borrowed the ladder, and naturally failed to return it. Could you please invent a method whereby you can climb up the wall without a ladder, grip the wall securely with your feet, and bang a hole into the wall with your nose? You will react with disbelief, and quite rightly so. I can understand that wood can be fashioned into a ladder, and metal into a drill, but that you should be able to transform yourself into both a flying creature and a human drill, simultaneously, sounds like something from science fiction. Is such a thing possible?

Not only is this possible, but it is so common that, like the humble safety pin, it is almost taken for granted.

Slamming Your Head Against a Wall

Enter the woodpecker. Woodpeckers are the only creatures that spend most of their waking hours banging their heads against wood. They do this because of the role that they have been given in the animal world, gleaning insects from under the bark of trees. They have the rare distinction of being the only living things able to locate and eradicate these insect hordes.

The woodpecker deserves our respect for its vital role. It is tremendously important to the woodland economy, for it strips dead trees of their bark and prevents the spread of carpenter-ant colonies to sound trees nearby. It is also unbelievably efficient: a large woodpecker once removed 30 feet of bark in less than 15 minutes. And its appetite matches its efficiency. Examination of the stomach contents of one bird revealed 2,600 carpenter ants!

Every part of the woodpecker’s body is directed toward the sole object of hewing wood. Its legs are short and powerful, and they grasp the bark with a unique arrangement of sharply pointed toes – two toes point forward, two backward, forming a gripping pair of tongs on each foot. So there you have it – if you want to climb the wall without a ladder, just tell your body to please comply and grow a pair of wings, and then to rearrange its toes in the manner described. If the woodpecker can do it, why can’t you?

The woodpecker’s tail sits firmly against the tree trunk, acting as a brace, propping and steadying the bird as it delivers jackhammer blows with its bill. The middle pair of those tail feathers is unusually strong, and remarkably, these feathers, which are the main props, do not fall out during molting until all the other tail feathers have been replaced and can support the weight of the bird. You really do not have to look hard for evidence of design in anything; you just have to open your eyes – it is right there for you to see.

And now for the biggest problem of all. Try to slam your head against an unyielding wall. Once will give you a headache, twice a migraine, three times a severe concussion. How about banging your head against the wall at the rate of 100 times a minute? How would you protect your brain from irreparable damage? Woodpeckers do this without any problem. You will never find woodpeckers with concussions lying dazed at the foot of the tree, nor have there ever been any, for the little bird is perfectly equipped for slamming its head against wood without any injury whatsoever.

The beak is straight, very hard, and pointed. The skull that drives it is unusually thick and is moved by powerful neck muscles. But that’s not even the amazing part. The bones between the beak and skull are not rigidly joined, as they are in most other birds. Instead, the connective tissue is spongy and elastic, serving as a shock absorber. When you bear in mind that shock absorbers were not introduced into moving vehicles until well into the 20th century, it becomes apparent that a system of shock absorbers built into the head is anything but simple.

Master Builder and Engineer

The woodpecker wonders don’t end there. The woodpecker’s ability to locate insects is uncanny, and for this it has been endowed with an acute sense of hearing. After the bird taps on the trunk, it pauses a moment, waiting to hear whether the tapping has disturbed any insects hidden inside. Once a bird has found a place where the sound indicates that further investigation is necessary, its taps become sharper. Then, as it zeros in on the insects, the bark begins to fly.

Woodpeckers have an uncanny skill for gauging the strength of the wood in which they find their feast, and in which they nest. More than half the weight of the tree trunk may be above their excavation, yet they dig the hole in such a way that it does not place a strain on the tree. Rain and wind are kept out of their nest by drilling the entry passage upward before turning downward to hollow out the long, vertical nesting cavity. Who taught them these advanced building and engineering skills?

Of all the tools in its small body, the woodpecker’s tongue is the most remarkable. It is very long – in some cases four times as long as the beak – and can be flicked in and out like a snake’s. The tongue is pliable and dexterous, and can wind itself around the curves and bends of the insect galleries. Examine its tongue closely and you will see that it is pointed and has barbs on the tip like little fishhooks. It is used to impale grubs and pull them out of their galleries. The tip of the tongue is coated with a sticky substance which the woodpecker uses as bait to catch ants. The ants rush forward to attack what appears to be a worm climbing into their nest, and there they remain, stuck to the hungry woodpecker’s tongue.

One species of woodpecker has an especially unique way of obtaining its food. It drills a series of small holes close together into the bark of trees, and licks the fountains of sap. The fountains also attract insects, which are then added to the diet without the necessity of drilling for them.

Because of their wondrous equipment, woodpeckers can dig out insects both in winter and summer; consequently, their migrations are of limited range. Many survive the winter by living on acorns and nuts which they have stored.

Never be afraid of being described as a nudnik. If you don’t observe, and you don’t ask unusual questions, your mind will remain so closed to the wonders of the Creator that fill the universe that not even the woodpecker will be able to open it.

Tuvia Cohen is a humorist, scientist, and an accomplished author.