Why Woodpeckers Don't Need Safety Goggles, and Why Their Beaks Never Get Stuck in the Wood

From my first shop teacher to my last, all have stressed the importance of wearing eye protection in the shop. Applying tools to materials inevitably creates flying shards with unpredictable trajectories. So how is it that woodpeckers, who have a tool at the end of their face that they slam into trees up to 12,000 times a day, never wear safety goggles, yet never seem to turn up at the ER with a scratched cornea and sheepish excuses?

For that matter, how do camels, polar bears and beavers keep sand, snow and water out of their eyes?

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Woodpeckers actually have a leg up on all of them. These wood-processing avians have evolved these:

That protective tuft of feathers, located midway between the business end of their beaks and their eyes, is actually there to deflect chips. I know it sounds like malarkey, but ask an ornithologist.

Woodpeckers also have a feature shared by aforementioned camels and polar bears (and aardvarks and sharks, among others) called a nictitating membrane in their eyes. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Men in Black,” you know what those are:

Here’s a better look:

By Toby Hudson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

That third eyelid comes in awfully handy for keeping out debris–but, sadly, evolution left it off our list of human goodies. Instead we got thumbs that we can use to work tools, and to reach into our pockets to grasp the money needed to buy a pair of safety goggles.


The article above was originally printed in 2018. I’m updating it here and adding some information from Science, via BoingBoing, who explains “Why a woodpecker’s beak doesn’t get stuck in a tree like a nail.” After studying slow-motion footage of woodpeckers doing their thing, researchers at the University of Antwerp found that the birds add a little move to the end of each strike:

“Once the tip of the woodpecker’s bill hits the wood, the bird’s head rotates to the side ever so slightly, lifting the top part of the beak and twisting it a bit in the other direction, the videos reveal. This pull opens the bill a tiny amount and creates free space between the beak tip and the wood at the bottom of the punctured hole, so the bird can then easily retract its beak.”

Source: core77

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