Monday, May 01, 2006

woodpecker headaches

It's six a.m. and I'm wondering why woodpeckers don't get headaches. Because if they did, you see, they wouldn't be pounding so loudly and for so long.

Or maybe it's one of those Audubon Singing Bird clocks with a different bird song to mark each hour - and they just chose an incredibly bad sound for six a.m..

It's six o-five a.m. on the same day and, after a brief return to sleep, I realize that it is definitely not a clock and I'm wondering once again why woodpeckers don't get headaches.

At both of the above times the event that prompted my musings about migraines was the rapid rat-tat-tat-tat-tat of one of those headstrong birds on one of the neighborhood trees - close enough to clearly hear, far enough away so as to not be visible. Every morning, six a.m., rat-tat-etc. - without fail.

I remember when Mars and I first got married listening to some of our friends talk about the "dumb woodpecker" who woke them up every morning with its incessant tapping on the roof just above their bedroom window. The husband then mentioned this to a neighbor bird-watcher who informed him that the "dumb woodpecker" was not in fact pecking out of pique but rather because it was (apparently with great success) breaking its overnight fast with a protein feast provided within our friends' house covering.

They had their roof re-shingled and the early morning drum concert ceased.

Over the years we have heard other tales of annoying woodpecker hammering on telephone poles and aluminum gutters. And we've listened to our own share of first hand 'pecker poundings - but never before with the regularity and amplification of this particular one.

Currently there is a pair of red bellied and several downey woodpeckers that have spent the winter and early spring dining at the suet basket that we have hanging just outside of our family room window. Even in the coldest weather, when the hard white fat was probably frozen solid, these beak-beating visitors made nary a sound at our tallow terminal.

These same birds also dine periodically on the dead wood parts of the flowering crab tree on which the feeder hangs - very abstemiously, with minimal if any disruption (maybe five or six nearly inaudible taps), and at a much more decent time of the day. I am absolutely certain that none of these guys are our early morning sleep-breakers.

I also suspect that because of their more genteel feeding habits they rarely if ever have headaches.

But that six a.m. bark pounder just has to have a skull splitting with pain - right?.
Not according to the on-line scientists. All of these birds of the family Picidae, both the dainty eaters and the full-tilt tappers, have evolutionarily protected themselves from pains in the head by having a "stout" bill, a shock-absorbing beak hinge, a strong neck, and a small brain (both in absolute terms and relative to their body size as compared to humans). Other bird families are not similarly equipped and thus presumably not immune to such cranial ailments.

Also these birds seem, by their lifestyle, not to be subject to the stressors that, for the human population at least, are the common causes of headaches, namely : anger, muscle tension, missed meals, vigorous exercise and sexual excitement (not tonight, I've already had a headache?).

I guess what's true of people is also true of birds - some get headaches and some just give them.

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