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When Woodpeckers Peck Heads Instead of Wood

Nature By
The Gila woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis) is a medium-sized woodpecker of the desert regions of the southwestern United States and western Mexico. In the U.S., they range through southeastern California, southern Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. The back and wings of this bird are spotted and barred with a black and white zebra-like pattern. The neck, throat, belly and head are greyish-tan in color. The male has a small red cap on the top of the head. Females and juveniles are similar, but both lack the red cap of the adult male. White wing patches are prominent in flight. The dark tail has white bars on the central tail feathers. They range from 8-10 in (20-25 cm) in length.
The Gila woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis) is a medium-sized woodpecker of the desert regions of the southwestern United States and western Mexico. (Getty Images)

 

When ornithologist Harold Greeley started filming a mourning dove’s nest in a cactus in Tucson, Arizona, he didn’t expect to capture a first for woodpeckers. He certainly didn’t expect it to be quite so gruesome. Instead, an attempt to learn about dove mating habits made him witness to an unnerving attack by the Gila woodpecker.

This is how Jason Bittel for Smithsonian.com describes the incident (be warned: while scientifically significant, this is still unnerving):

“Before the chicks even realize there’s an enemy at the gates, the woodpecker cocks its head back and starts to peck … their skulls. The Gila’s head moves like a pneumatic hammer, up and down, up and down, drilling into flesh and bone with the force of 1,000 G’s. Soon both chicks’ skulls have been opened up like coconuts. At this point, the woodpecker begins extracting brain and blood with its long, sticky tongue.”

Greeley has a theory why this behavior is occurring. The attack isn’t out of sadism, but just a desperate need to survive:

“My guess is that these woodpeckers, like most birds in the Sonoran Desert, are fluid or water stressed. This woodpecker appears to me to be clearly targeting the heads of the nestlings, and thus purposefully opening them to drink fluid—and this may be something that happens more often than is documented.”

To read more about these woodpeckers, click here. You can watch for yourself in the video link here. Beware: As promised, this is nature at its most unexpectedly disturbing.

 —RealClearLife Staff