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Julian Alper
Nature of Israel

Woodpeckers – The Ultimate Headbangers

Syrian Woodpecker - Gazelle Valley, Jerusalem [JA]
Syrian Woodpecker - Gazelle Valley, Jerusalem [JA]

It is a sad fact that many professional soccer players from the 1960s and 1970s are suffering with or died from dementia. At least five of the 11 1966 England World Cup winners suffered. Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Ray Wilson and Martin Peters died from this horrible condition and Sir Bobby Charlton is living with it now. Jeff Astle, Peter Bonetti and Billy McNeil are other high-profile players who died the same death. Recent research has found that former professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to develop dementia than others. Professional boxers and even amateur boxes are also at high risk of developing this disease. Punch drunk is just what it says and sadly boxers, however good they were at ducking punches, have suffered terribly – perhaps the most high-profile case being that of Muhammed Ali (formerly known as Cassius Clay) who died of Parkinson’s disease in 2016. The blows to the head suffered by the boxers and the footballers using their head to propel heavy leather footballs was more than the head can cope with and the consequences of doing this throughout many years has been quite horrendous.

This being so, it makes one wonder about the damage that a woodpecker inflicts upon itself throughout the course of its life. Woodpeckers bang their bills against tree trunks at a rate of up to twenty pecks per second. Why don’t they get concussion from all this headbanging? The drumming sound that woodpeckers make with their pecking is their way of attracting mates. But it’s not just for mating purposes that they peck away at ten to the dozen, it’s also their way of extracting insects from the bark. Given that it is an essential part of the woodpeckers’ makeup to peck in this way, they must be specially adapted to withstand the head battering self-abuse. And indeed, they are. And not only that, but they also need a protection for their eyes which, without protection would suffer terribly. A special membrane covers the eye momentarily at each peck, so that the eyes don’t pop out, nor are they damaged by flying debris. It was thought that the brain was cushioned with a sort of shock absorber, but recent research published in the journal Current Biology in July 2022 has shown this to be a myth. Instead, scientists have shown that the shape of the head and beak are perfectly suited so that the impact on the brain is minimised. This specially designed shape together with an unusual tongue that wraps round the brain ensures that the woodpecker isn’t abusing itself at all.

In England we used to see green woodpeckers, great spotted woodpeckers and lesser spotted woodpeckers. Of course, the lesser spotted was spotted less often. None of these woodpeckers reach Israel – here we see the Syrian woodpecker, which is similar to the great spotted – and is spotted quite frequently.

Here is a poem that I wrote recently – it was first published in Voices Israel Anthology 2023

The Dendrocopos

I hear the tapping of the Dendrocopos,
Like the beating of a drum,
Then there is quiet.
I hear the pecking of the Dendrocopos,
Like the rhythm of a drill,
Then there’s a pause.
I hear the pitter-patter of the Dendrocopos,
The pitter-patter of tiny beaks,
Then there is silence.

I spot it from the hide,
Then it flies,
Up and down, but not upside down,
Bursts of flapping,
Passive glides with spreadeagled wings,
It bounds ahead, its wings bound to its sides.
It hides, in a perfect spot, behind the hide,
Behind the trunk, behind a branch, behind the leaves,
I can’t spot it.

I spot it again, I see the spots,
I see the red flash on its head,
I see the red flash of its tail,
The black and the white.
I see its shape against the tree,
Its beak is poised.
And I hear the tapping,
And the pecking,
The pitter-patter of the Dendrocopos.
It hides again behind the trunk, behind a branch, behind the leaves,
But is it a great-spotted, or is it spotted less?
I can’t spot it.
But it can’t be a great-spotted, they’re not spotted here,
Nor a lesser-spotted, they’re not spotted here,
It has to be the pitter patter of,
Dendrocopos syriacus,
The Syrian Woodpecker is spotted here.

Syrian Woodpecker – Gazelle Valley, Jerusalem [JA]
Syrian Woodpecker [JA]
Syrian Woodpecker [JA]
Syrian Woodpecker – Switzerland Forest, Tiberias [JA]
About the Author
I am an Amateur Photographer living in Tiberias, having made Aliyah from Manchester, UK. When not out and about with my camera I work as a Hi Tech Consultant. This is my website - https://natureofisrael.blogspot.com/. You can see my contributions to Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:JulianAlper. And this is my YouTube channel - https://www.youtube.com/user/JulianAlper1
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