Thursday, April 4, 2019

Woodpecker Tongues

            Sometimes it’s good to pursue a special interest. For some it’s stamp collecting, though I’m not sure anyone doing that is still alive. Others may devote themselves to historical baseball statistics, or trivia about President Polk, or counting President Trumps weekly factual errors. For me, for a while, it was playing Words With Friends. (Still is, come to think of it . . ..) For Kim it’s photographing butterflies and birds. But lately, she has developed a more specialized interest: photographing the tongues of woodpeckers.

            Do any of you share this interest?

            I didn’t think so.

            Kim says that her photographs of woodpecker tongues are not ready to be shown, that they are mainly for purposes of research. Kim has high standards, but she might respond to pressure . . ..

            Why do we have such weird special interests? Unsurprisingly, I’ve developed several theories.

·     We notice an empty space in our lives, and we grab at something – anything – to fill it up. But no, there is no sense of emergency here. What kind of hole could be filled by a woodpecker’s tongue?

·     We have evolved in a way that makes free-floating curiosity serve our reproductive advantage. Sometimes that curiosity serves us well – think of explorers, medical researchers, inventors of the cell phone. But sometimes that free-floating curiosity attaches itself to something both peculiar and trivial, you know, like butterfly wing design. But sometimes that peculiar triviality may lead to a payoff that benefits us all. Think of Lipitor. Penicillin. Silly Putty. Serendipity doesn’t just happen.

·     Perhaps the pursuit of a special interest is an evasion. You know, when there’s a disagreeable task that you can put off while organizing your collection of Studebaker hubcaps? I’ve been suspected of such an evasion when I researched Netflix in search of movies Kim and I might enjoy. This can take hours, and the payoff is questionable, at best. But it does allow me to avoid cleaning my shower – for a while.

·     Or maybe that being alive on our planet is just so damn interesting, anywhere you look – how can we find anything to be not worthy of our sustained attention. Did you know, for example, that the tongue of a Red-bellied Woodpecker is three times as long as its beak and wraps around the inside of its skull while awaiting use? I didn’t think you knew that. And some woodpecker tongues have backward facing barbs, while others have small brushes on the tip. And this about a woodpecker in China: “In this species of woodpecker, and some others, the tongue is so long that it forks in the throat, goes below the base of the jaw and wraps behind and over the top of the head, where the forked section rejoins and inserts in the bird’s right nostril or around the eye socket.”

·     Apparently (see above) the existence of the internet explains many devotions to special interests.

Incidentally, Kim believes she has evidence of a woodpecker with two tongues. This will be a first . . ..


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