Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Woody

It's spring, and a woodpecker is hammering away on the neighbor's tree, checking for bugs. It's likely either a Downy or a Hairy woodpecker, which differ only slightly, but even novices can readily tell them apart by asking a real birder. Sometimes they hammer on a chimney. There are no bugs in there--they're trying to attract a mate. The flicker that likes to drill holes in our house succeeds, at least, in attracting Dave, and he's not easy. Well, yes, he is easy. Still, woodpeckers are attractive.

The males in particular are often crowned with a bright red patch which they use as a sexual signaling device. They also have short, stiff tails that help anchor the bird to the sides of the tree while he's hammering and support him while he's climbing. Humans lack this and must resort to a crotch harness, which doubles as a sexual signaling device.

Many people wonder how the woodpecker avoids brain damage while he hammers away. Bird experts ("ornithodontists") point out that, for one thing, he has a very small brain. So he's utilizing the same sort of evolutionary stratagem that protects humans from debilitating tail injuries. I'm not sure I buy it. Although it is true that brains and peckers are rarely associated, the real reason woodpeckers don't get headaches is that their children all leave the nest in under a month.

And they don't have a lot of room for brains, because they need to free up the space to store their tongues. Many species of woodpeckers have a long tongue for exploring cavities and retrieving insects and sap. Then they have to reel it back into their heads so as to remain properly aerodynamic. So they run it up the backside of their skulls and tuck it in at the nostrils. Hummingbirds have a similar design. When they make little hummingbird yummy noises you can see the tongues go back and forth over the top of their heads. I'd like to think that the ability to ripple your head when you're happy could be a sexual signaling device, although for hummingbirds, which also have little fingers on their tongues, that might be gilding the lily. I know if a human were to develop little fingers on his tongue, word would get out.

Creationists, or proponents of Intelligent Design, are people who are more comfortable with mystery than knowledge, and they like to point to the woodpecker as being an example of Irreducible Complexity, proof that God had to have stamped it out whole, perhaps from a perceived shortage of time. As evidence, they point out that the woodpecker's tongue is anchored in its nose, which is not true, and that only God would think of doing such a thing, which might be true although we'll never know because he didn't do it, and that (most importantly) it directly contradicts Genesis, which is undoubtedly true, end of story, amen.

In reality, mutations can result in structural changes whose functions change over time, or fall into disuse. In humans, a hallmark of our evolution is our large brain, which allowed us to fashion tools and develop strategies and acquire knowledge so that we were able to achieve considerable success in spite of our physical weaknesses. Now, in many parts of the population that prefer mystery to knowledge, the brain is no longer being used much except as stuffing so our hats don't fall off. Only time will tell if this is a useful adaptation. I plan to keep exercising my own brain, just in case I need it later. Or at least until I can ripple my head.

55 comments:

  1. I love the limited space-finite volume skull-zero sum numeric game of brain VS tongue logic. This eXplains why I bite my tongue in a nocturnal feast resulting in pain best described at a level approaching a Hiroshima fireball cerebral onslaught. I am obviously thinking too much eXpanding my brain while dreaming of eating, ... cake? Yes, let's go with cake.

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  2. I don't know who's fault it is, Evolution or Creation, but they sure screwed up by not giving humans tails. Ever watched a cat walk along flicking its tail? Or a monkey hanging by his tail? Or squirrels wrapping their tails around each other while procreating? Imagine how good that must feel. You never see cats or monkeys or squirrels at the chiropractors do you?

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    1. That's a good party question: what kind of tail would you like, if you could have any kind? My favorite answer that I wouldn't have thought of was Kangaroo. You could hop around and then SPLORT stick that sucker right down and have a place to sit.

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    2. Er, Murr, you do know that it's not the tail that enable them to hop around so well, right? A person with a kangaroo tail would presumably walk around before SPLORT sitting down. (Perhaps I have discovered the source of your complaints that you are not a good at jumping...)

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    3. No no. The tail is out straight while the hopping is going on and then SPLORT doink bam: you're sitting. Re: my jumping, I tried to demonstrate a short leap for Dave on the occasion of Leap Day, got about two inches of air, and fell backwards on the pavement, smacking my head. The head smacking explains a lot, too.

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    4. Mr. Charleston,

      About half of us DO have tails. (Re: the Latin root (as it were) of the word, "penis.") And, many of us DO like to wrap them around another during procreation.

      Just a thought.

      P.S. I got in wicked trouble in high school when I offered the "Health" teacher an answer to her question regarding what we thought "penis" meant in Latin. Why ask if you don't expect an answer? Geeesh! Imagine my surprise, though, when she said, "tail."

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  3. We've got Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers here, and I've managed to tell the difference without an experienced birder, but it was definitely a brain workout. We also have Northern Flickers, and I've been fascinated watching them beat their brains out lately. Now I understand and have been enlightened, Murr. :-)

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    1. I can tell the difference if they stand right next to each other in profile in the same order they're in the guide book. Usually.

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    2. We've got four kinds in the south of Virginia, at least in my backyard.... I keep the bird guide and binocs by the kitchen window for reduced headaches.

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  4. I'm impressed by the speed with which the woodpeckers hammer on our chimney. And lordy how the sound echoes around the neighborhood! He must feel like the biggest, hottest pecker in the world when that tattoo rattles out.

    Love the photo of the guy in the crotch harness.

    Dave is attracted by woodpeckers? I'm trying to imagine your conjugal relations and attire. Not that it's any of my business, of course, but the mind boggles.

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    1. Well, he's attracted in the sense of running towards the point of perforation of the house and screaming.

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    2. I kind of figured that. But it was funner imagining you in feathered deshabile, preening seductively.

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    3. It's way funner imagining you imagining me in deshabille.

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  5. I just got a vision of a woodpecker in flight trailing a two foot tongue behind it. Good thing that brain IS so tiny. Hmmm. You know there are a lot of people out there who seem to have teeny tiny brains. Maybe we need to examine their tongues.

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    1. Some of the teeniest-brained ones are the ones whose tongues flap the loudest.

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    2. And the people said "AMEN!!"

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  6. Ever wonder why in most species it is the male who is all fancy to attract the female while with humans it is the other way round. Men dress like unreformed communists while women dress like every day was hunting day.

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    1. I don't care what the man looks like. If he cooks, he's attractive.

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  7. As the mother of a 15 year-old, I've decided that in my next life I want to be a woodpecker if their children all leave the nest in under a month. Or better yet, a sea turtle. Don't they just lay their eggs on the beach and go right back to the water?

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    1. Almost any choice but human is an easier path. Let us know what you come up with, and we want to see pictures of the kids.

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  8. You forgot to mention that the human male only has so much blood. Either enough to think or enough to have an erection, but not both. This explains a lot.

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  9. Just wait 'til that crotch harness slips a bit, and then you'll hear some real frantic hammering...

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    1. That was our solar panel installer. He posed up there for HOURS. I never saw him lift a finger.

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  10. Where do I get me one of those crotch harnesses? The Audubon Society?

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    1. Aw, sugar. You don't need one. Throw on a red hat and you'll get every bird in town.

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  11. "Although it is true that brains and peckers are rarely associated"

    HA!

    I absolutely love the way you write. I've never learned so much about birds in such an entertaining fashion!

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    1. Oh goody, because I'm pretty sure that, scienterrifically speaking, you can take everything I say right to the bank.

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  12. Marvelous. So many quotable lines I can't remember them all nor could I decide which one to quote. You always make me laugh.....thank you.

    And informative too! But are you sure about hummers licking the tops of their heads with their tongues? I am an avid hummingbird watcher....some days I do little else....and I have not seen them do that. Of course my vision is failing and their tongues are pretty teensy. Still, I would like to know if you made that up.

    Love ya'.

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  13. Hi Lo! (I like saying that.) Yes it's true. But they're not licking their heads. It's rippling on the inside as it goes in and out and up the backside.

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  14. Ornithodontists, eh? I thought that meant people who outfit birds with tiny braces (a hard job given their lack of teeth).

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    1. Hen's teeth are notoriously the hardest to straighten.

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  15. Okay, we have lots of woodpeckers here, as well. Husband has had to block off a nest that was in process in our siding. We hear them constantly. We have red-bellied and pileated as well as the downy and hairy ones. But did I think of anything funny to write about them? No, I did not.....you continue to amaze and entertain. And the tongue up the backside was a bonus. :)

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    1. "The tongue up the backside" is a WHOLE different post.

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  16. I knew that with a title like "Woody" there would have to be at least one joke about sexual signaling devices.

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    1. Of course, that's more like waving a semaphore.

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  17. One of the funniest woodpecker things I saw was one of them hammering on a metal utility pole. (He was a Hairy woodpecker — one of those black and white creatures with the red sex spots on the back of his head. But he had no hair, as far as I could tell; just feathers.) The show took place in our back lane, and the noise echoed all over the neighbourhood. It was so loud that it almost rattled my head.

    The other really funny woodpecker story was this post. Thanks.

    And is Dave really that easy?

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  18. We have a little Downy who likes to hammer on the neighbour's metal clothesline pole. Deffo a heavy metal kind of guy...I picture him with his beak all corrugated like Woody Woodpecker's was when he ran into a wall.

    Never thought of myself as a Creationist but sometimes I do prefer mystery to knowledge--I'd really rather not know what that solar panel guy was thinking as he struck that pose with his crotch thingummy, for example.

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  19. When I think of a woodpecker hammering away on fireplaces or metal, I picture a cartoon-like character with his beak all bent outta shape. The must have strong peckers!!!
    Then, imagining you imagining Roxie imagining you imagining....uhhh, where was I going with that???? Well, let's just say the vision was complicated!
    When my son turned 13 and became possessed, I might have really envied woodpecker! Those teens sure do get rebellious, don't they!??

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    1. I'm not sure why people can't just be put in storage from about age twelve through twenty, and the world would have been just fine without me until I turned 35.

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  20. This puts me in mind of a wee ditty from one of my favorite musicals:

    "I would just like to say that it is my conviction that longer hair and other flamboyant affectations of appearance are nothing more than the male's emergence from his drab camouflage into the gaudy plumage which is the birthright of his sex. There is a peculiar notion that elegant plumage and fine feathers are not proper for the male-- when aaaaaaaactually....
    that is the way things are in most species."

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    1. Whoa, really? That's one of your favorite musicals? Waxen Flaxen, baby!

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  21. I've been educated and seriously amused. So glad to have discovered your blog -- thanks to Rob-Bear.

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  22. Thank you for the woodpecker info. My favorite is the big Pileated one, the 'Woody' kind because they are so dramatic in appearance. Don't see them often enough.

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    1. I saw one. Well, I was told I saw one by none other than Bill Of The Birds, who should know, but it was more of a flaming arrow through the woods. However, I'm counting it.

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  23. "Ornithodontists". Snort. But it does make me question (horrors) how much I can rely on the other points of instruction contained herein. Hmm?

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    1. Never question, never doubt. I always give you the whole truth, and a little bit more.

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  24. Speaking of birding. Yesterday day I had lunch with my cousin (your friend), Sara. She and Kelly are really looking forward to New River. I have a serious case of bird watching envy!

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  25. I'm even more interested in seeing them than the birds. And that's a lot!

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