We didn’t wonder either, but it’s a good question, now someone mentions it. Turns out …
In “How woodpeckers avoid head injury” (BBC News , October 27, 2011), Jason Palmer reports that it’s not even especially well adapted:
The birds have little “sub-dural space” between their brains and their skulls, so the brain does not have room to bump around as it does in humans. Also, their brains are longer top-to-bottom than front-to-back, meaning the force against the skull is spread over a larger brain area.
The team’s simulations showed that three factors were at work in sparing the birds injury.
Firstly, the hyoid bone’s looping structure around the whole skull was found to act as a “safety belt”, especially after the initial impact.
The team also found that the upper and lower halves of the birds’ beaks were uneven, and as force was transmitted from the tip of the beak into the bone, this asymmetry lowered the load that made it as far as the brain.
Lastly, plate-like bones with a “spongy” structure at different points in the skull helped distribute the incoming force, thereby protecting the brain.
The team stresses that it is the combination of the three, rather than any one feature, that keeps woodpeckers pecking without injury.
Like we always say, whattan accident.