When it comes to headbangers, no Black Sabbath fan alive can outdo a woodpecker. Imagine smacking your head into a tree at 15 miles an hour, as frequently as 20 times a second, thousands of times a day, every day. That’s the woodpecker life. Sometimes woodpeckers drill into trees to snack on insects that have bored under the bark. Other times they excavate deep cavities in trees that they nest in. Some species carve cubbyholes in tree trunks to stash acorns. In 2015, an ornithologist filmed a desert woodpecker as it pecked through the skulls of mourning dove chicks to eat their baby brains.
Woodpeckers, despite all this hammering, seem to be fine. Fossils suggest that the birds have been around for 25 million years without concussing themselves to extinction. This has led to the suspicion that the birds don’t suffer head injuries. Woodpeckers might be the closest thing neuropathologists, who are experts in brain trauma, have to a heraldic animal. (Illinois neurosurgeon Julian Bailes, portrayed by Alec Baldwin in the movie “Concussion,” told Forbes he keeps a woodpecker skeleton in his office.)
Yet a new report about woodpecker brain tissue raises the possibility that the birds do suffer some consequences. Maybe the woodpeckers are just fine behaviorally. But they have, to the scientists’ surprise, protein accumulations in their brains that resemble those found in athletes with head trauma.