It was one of our long evening walks. We were walking next to our hotel, where we stayed on our trip from West to East coast. Suddenly I heard hammering, it was very loud. We walked in that direction and knocking became louder. I looked up and in a light of a street lamp I saw him. It was a woodpecker sitting on a side of a long trunk pine tree with no branches half way up. I swear I could see his red cap. Our presence didn’t bother him a bit. We watched for a while, Bent all in attention. Bird’s head was drumming and hammering away. He was working on a meal.
Then I thought of something. Concussion! Brain trauma. How can he be doing that? His whole life long? Woodpeckers live 10-12 years. It’s a lot of banging just to make a living. Of course woodpeckers don’t have life nor even health threatening brain damage. I remember a recent deluge of publicized cases of sport induced closed head trauma. NHL and NFL are working on that problem very hard. Sudden attention to that was brought by a fact of very prominent athletes being incapacitated for quite a while after collisions on field or on ice. When one of the best, if not the best hockey players looses almost an entire season to concussion, it is a big deal. He looses his health, team looses him and somebody is loosing a lot of money. Treatment is negligible, relies on spontaneous recovery. All we can do is to monitor progress with psychological testing. Therefore prevention is crucial. Players are taught how to avoid them and at least be prepared. Equipment is being redesigned. Rules of game are being tightened. Players are being tested and re-tested. And we still don’t know long term effects of closed head trauma during sporting events.
But woodpeckers don’t have this kind of problems! How come?
I didn’t think any research had been done on this topic, but it has, I found it. There is actually literature addressing the problem of head trauma in woodpeckers.
One of first studies was done analyzing fast speed movie of woodpecker at work. How did they get to him with such a specialized equipment and on time?. Well, there is a story coming with this paper. Movie was done in an office of park ranger in California. Woodpecker had a broken wing, couldn’t fly and was kept in the office. Each time he heard the ranger typing on his classic typewriter, bird started to peck on tree trunk located it the same room. All they had to do was to bring high speed camera and start typing.
More recent study was done in MIT and published in The Journal of Zoology in 2006. It is analyzing acceleration and deceleration of its little brain. Uses highly sophisticated mathematical formulas and graphs. Shapes of human’s and bird’s skulls are compared and conclusions drawn, why woodpeckers do not suffer concussions. They came out with three reasons.
1.Their brains are smaller, which reduces stress on the brain for a given acceleration,
2.The duration of impact is short, which increases tolerable acceleration and
3.The orientation of the brain is such, that increases area of contact between the skull and the brain (that one I understand).
And here you have it. The difference in neuron complexity between birds and humans were not addressed.
There is a fine line between the public, which likes to watch collisions be it on field or ice and players, who usually want to avoid them. For participation players are being awarded serious money. They know the risks. Or do they? Will they still have the same opinion 20 years from now? And what about boxing? I will not touch that topic. Not now.