Perspective: A Strange Way To Keep Safe

May 8, 2020

I’ve been watching a pair of yellow-bellied sapsuckers excavate a cavity in a dead white oak behind the shed. Since I’m home all the time, I can wander over and look at them whenever I feel like it, which is more often than you might expect.

Sapsuckers, a kind of woodpecker, aren’t supposed to be here. They nest in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada. In fact, according to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, there has never been a confirmed nesting of yellow-bellied sapsuckers in my neck of Wisconsin. Yet here they are anyway, doing their thing in my dead oak. I guess they got lost and didn’t have a Bird Atlas.

You can’t watch a woodpecker batter the trunk of a dead tree for very long without thinking about... brain trauma. I’m sure you’ve also wondered how woodpeckers sustain such head rattling without concussing themselves. My father-in-law used to say that woodpeckers could wrap their tongues around their brains to soften the blows. What an image! Without ever looking up, I knew it couldn’t be true. Folk legend! To believe a thing like that I’d have to wrap my own tongue around my brain to suffocate it of all oxygen.

Somewhere in the laws of nature it’s written that the weirdest notions are the truest. My father in law was right!  The long tongue of a woodpecker is a retractable seatbelt that cradles its skull. But the tiny size of its brain also contributes to the strange miracle of a woodpecker.

It turns out the smaller your brain, the easier it is to keep safe. This seems unfair to me, I think, staring once again at the hole in the dead tree. 

I’m Chris Fink and that’s my perspective.