For the Birds Radio Program: Protective Gear
How have woodpeckers inspired football helmets?
On November 1, 1959, a hockey puck hit the goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, Jacques Plante, square in the face for the last time. He went to the locker room to get stitched up, and emerged wearing a plastic face mask he’d had made from fiberglass and resin. Other goalies in the NHL quickly got face masks of their own.
Plante’s wasn’t the first hockey mask ever worn–back in the 1920s Cliff Benedict experimented with a leather face mask, but unlike Plante’s mask, it didn’t catch on. In football, players have long worn helmets to protect their brains from impacts. And even basketball players wear some protective gear beneath their paltry uniforms. Our pitiful human bodies need a lot more protection than the tiniest hummingbird, even just for playing games. As King Lear observed on the heath, “Is man no more than this? Consider him well… Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal…”
Woodpeckers slam their faces into trees every day, with forces comparable to flying hockey pucks, but they couldn’t conceive of wearing manufactured protective gear. Woodpecker beaks are dense and hard, shaped like chisels, and strong enough to hammer a hole into hardwood. A woodpecker’ s thick-walled skull, the narrow space between the tough outer membrane of the brain and the brain itself, and the strong muscles surrounding the skull and the base of the bill absorb the shock of pounding. Blue Jays and crows crack open heavy nuts and seeds with their beaks, and chickadees hammer into sunflower seeds and other hard shells to extract their daily bread. They aren’t as well adapted as woodpeckers for hammering, but even they have better adaptations to protect their faces and brains than a football player without a helmet.
Of course, this avian system can’t withstand some forces–when a flicker flying at full speed bonks into a window, the force can break its neck or back. An estimated 80 million birds are killed at windows in the US every year-most fatalities are from head or spinal injuries, some from broken wings. Not even woodpecker heads were designed to withstand that much force, so maybe a protective helmet wouldn’t be that bad of an idea for them, if only they made them in their size and price range.
Birds couldn’t get off the ground wearing a football player’s protective pads, so they face their adversaries with nothing more substantial than feathers. Fortunately, birds are more peaceable with their kind than football and hockey players are, but even so there are times when feathers aren’t enough–57 million birds are killed in the US every year by cars, 1.2 million from striking communications towers and their supporting guy wires, and over 500 million by house cats, so feathers obviously don’t offer unlimited protection. The US Consumer Safety Board would probably issue warnings about feathers, or even recall them, if they had jurisdiction.
Except for Merlins and Sharp-shinned Hawks who chase larger, more dangerous hawks for the fun of it, birds don’t put themselves into threatening situations for entertainment. Avian protective gear may not protect birds against everything, but even in their protective clothing, athletes as a group aren’t as successful as birds-after all, there are a lot more birds than hockey and football players. And not even the fittest athlete would dare compete in a sporting match, much less go through the rest of his or her life, as naked as a jaybird.