Woodpecker Eyes, The Haw-ful Truth

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I had a good friend tell me over a game of bingo last night, that if woodpeckers don’t close their eyes when they crack their beaks against a tree, their eyeballs pop out, from the force of the impact.  Yes, I went to a bar and played bingo.  To be clear, ‘good friend’ is not a euphemism for the ninety year old man sitting next to me, nor is ‘bar’ a euphemism for retirement home.  Back to the birds-I don’t know about you, but I thought the image was reminiscent of a Woody the Woodpecker reel.  I had to investigate.

I learned of the nictitating membrane, aka the haw.  A quick dictionary.com visit revealed that the word nictitate means to wink.  Maybe some of you knew this already.  If so, why haven’t you mentioned it?

Woodpeckers, like many other creatures (beavers, manatees, sharks, polar bears, lemurs, dogs..to name a few) have a nictitating membrane-a third eyelid that moves horizontally across the eye, to protect it.  The claim that this membrane prevents woodpecker eyes from popping out of their heads…well, that I found no evidence to support.  Granted, I don’t have more than a google toolbar at my disposal, so my research isn’t top notch work.

What I did discover, was that the woodpecker is a hot topic in the evolution vs. creationism argument.  I can’t tell you how many forums exist out there-where totally uninformed individuals (on both sides) call each other names, insult each other’s mothers, and insinuate each other’s reproductive habits with other members of the animal kingdom, while arguing whether the woodpecker could have ever evolved.  Creationists think they’re too complicated.  I haven’t yet mentioned the woodpecker tongue, which is pretty amazing.  Instead of being a muscular organ, like it is in humans, it is supported by a bone and cartilage structure, that has its anchors deep within the skull.  Cool!  Also, the woodpecker’s brain is small, and very carefully situated, to minimize damage from the jarring of the peckity peck peck.

But-back to the eyeball issue.  The woodpecker’s nictitating membrane does protect its eyes. It protects them from flying debris, and from the potential for retinal damage from the jarring of the peckity peck peck.  Have you noticed that I like the sound of “jarring of the peckity peck peck”?  I really do.

The haw protects polar bears from snow blindness.  In sea lions, it helps remove sand and other beach debris.  In hawks, it protects the parents’ eyes from the beaks of their young while they feed them.  In humans, the vestigial haw can be found in the corner of your eyeball, (that little red triangle of flesh).

I’d like to make clear, this post is not meant to argue one way or the other..evolution or creation.  I personally don’t see why both can’t be true.  Natural selection and creation.  We’re all entitled to our own beliefs and opinions.  I’m not going to insult anyone’s mother to prove a point.

If you have a research paper, written by an actual scientist, from an accredited organization or university, that gives evidence of woodpecker eyes popping out, I would love to read it.  Who knows, maybe it exists.  Nictitate, Nictitate.

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