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Guardians of the Forests

A review by Noel Snyder

Woodpeckers of the World: A Photographic Guide, by Gerard Gorman

Firefly Books, 2014

528 pages, $49.95—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14365

Gerard Gorman’s stunningly illustrated Woodpeckers of the World provides basic information on all of the species in the family Picidae, including the woodpeckers, sapsuckers, flickers, flamebacks, piculets, and the peculiar wrynecks. Gorman counts 239 species, while acknowledging that other authorities recognize different totals; the number can be expected to increase, not primarily because of the discovery of previously unknown birds, but as a result of the recent trend toward “splitting” already known populations.

The book’s introductory sections concisely treat the distribution of various groups, the cultural importance of some species, trends in taxonomy, movements and migration, peculiarities of anatomy and morphology, habitat preferences, behavioral diversity, breeding habits, peculiarities of plumage and molt, sexual dimorphism, foods and foraging habits, flight characteristics, vocalizations and drumming behavior, roles in controlling prey populations, and conservation issues.

firefly coverIntriguing as all of those aspects are, they are only preliminary to the main emphasis of this book, the species accounts. All species are treated in individual accounts, usually two or three pages long, and nearly all are illustrated by multiple photographs. Many woodpeckers are strikingly colored, and most of these photographs are magnificent portrayals of the birds in natural surroundings, often engaged in characteristic behavior. All together, these materials give the reader an appreciation of the full diversity of this family in a very attractive format.

Covering all the world’s woodpeckers and weighing in at a substantial three pounds, this book is not intended primarily as a field guide, but is instead a convenient basic sourcebook that will find a home in the libraries of ornithologists, naturalists, conservationists, and birdwatchers in many countries. Still, it does give detailed  descriptions for the field identification of adults, juveniles, and races of the various species, enhanced by the well-chosen photographs. These materials will allow reliable identification of species seen well or photographed in the field, at least retrospectively.

Each species account also includes a map of breeding and non-breeding season ranges, descriptions of vocalizations and drumming sounds, and statements of status, habitat preference, similar species, and foods and foraging behavior.

BINbuttonThe family Picidae as defined here is found on all continents except Australia and Antarctica; it is perhaps best represented in South America and least well represented in Africa. Members of the family also occur on many of the world’s islands, but are absent from Greenland, Madagascar, Hawaii, and most other islands of the open Pacific Ocean. Many of the species resident in the West Indies and East Indies are endemic to single islands or to groups of closely associated islands.

Occupying a nearly worldwide range in temperate and tropical regions, the woodpeckers must be considered to have undergone one of the most successful evolutionary radiations among birds. Even in regions picids have not managed to occupy, one sees other bird species convergently picking up some of their characteristics. On the Galapagos Islands, the tool-using Woodpecker Finch (Camarhynchus pallidus) exploits insects in the trunks and branches of trees, while in Australia, several species of cockatoos have developed the ability to harvest wood-boring beetles and other wood-dwelling insects.

In size, members of the family Picidae range from the piculets, some barely 8 cm in length, to the probably extinct Imperial Woodpecker, which sometimes reached 60 cm. Few species are migratory, and although most are adapted to woodlands and either drill nest holes in tree trunks or are secondary cavity nesters in trees, several species, including the Campo Flicker and the Andean Flicker of South America and the Ground Woodpecker of Africa, thrive in open country, where they often dig nests in earth banks or termite mounds. The role of many woodpeckers in providing nest cavities for secondary cavity-nesting birds, and the interactions among these species over nest sites and food supplies, involve behaviors of surprising complexity.

Most woodpeckers are monogamous, with both parents participating in the rearing of young, but members of this family also exhibit some of the most complicated social systems among birds. In the familiar Acorn Woodpecker, clans comprising multiple adult females and males collaborate with juveniles in feeding nestlings.

Among the specialized family features Gorman touches on are behavioral characteristics, such as drumming, and anatomical characteristics, such as the zygodactyl arrangement of the toes, with two digits pointing forward and two to the rear. Especially interesting are the anatomical adaptations of the head region, which enable true woodpeckers to deal with the severe mechanical stress of pounding bills into wood.

As a group, the woodpeckers are far from limited to feeding on wood-boring insects. Many species also take fruits and seeds. Some feed extensively on sap and the insects attracted to  sap wells drilled into living trunks; some feed on nectar, some on small vertebrates such as lizards. And some, such as the Red-headed Woodpecker and the Lewis’s Woodpecker of North America, are highly accomplished in the aerial capture of flying insects.

As to conservation, Gorman notes the probable recent extinction of only two of the world’s woodpeckers, both residents of North Americathe Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the Imperial Woodpecker. But other species in many regions are also declining and threatened to various degrees, perhaps especially by continuing deforestation.

Despite the massive public attention given recently to ivory-bills and imperials, Gorman wisely avoids the quagmire of commenting on recent sightings, and in an apparent effort to achieve balance, he provides no more text coverage for these notorious birds than for others. Fortunately, as a consolation for ivory-bill- and imperial-starved readers, his bibliography lists a number of recent publications on those species.

To avoid repetition and save space, Gorman does not provide a separate bibliography for each species, but instead presents an extensive bibliography of woodpecker publications in general since 2002. For earlier works, he refers the reader to the bibliographies in Winkler, Christie, and Nurney’s 1995 Woodpeckers: a guide to the woodpeckers, piculets and wrynecks of the world and to Winkler and Christie’s 2002 Family Picidae in Handbook of the birds of the world. Readers seeking additional information will also be well advised to consult the species accounts in the Birds of North America series and in Short’s Woodpeckers of the world.

My overall reaction to this book is strongly positive. It is a beautifully illustrated monograph, somewhat in the tradition of early natural history, deliberately designed to capture the attention of readers with its aesthetic appeal. Some of the more than 700 photographs by more than 200 photographers are among the finest woodpecker illustrations in circulation, and many depict species unfamiliar to most readers.

I expect that the book will receive criticism for not being an exhaustive compilation of all woodpecker information, but that simply is not its intent. If it had been, the poundage of the book would probably have exceeded the “carrying capacity” of most readers. The information provided here is enough to answer most questions. For those whose curiosity is more compulsive, there are other, more detailed accounts, such as those in the BNA series.

Woodpeckers of the World succeeds admirably in presenting a concise but informative review of the world’s picids, and should be viewed as the sort of volume that will stimulate readers into seeking additional information or even conducting their own studies. Especially with its many fine photographs, the book captures the romance of a highly charismatic family of birds, surely a worthy goal in its own right.

14-5-03-07 [Noel Snyder]

– Noel Snyder is retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where he led field research and conservation programs for the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot, Everglade Kite, and California Condor. His publications include books and papers on these species and more recent volumes on the Carolina Parakeet and Ivory-billed Woodpecker. 

Recommended citation:

Snyder, N. 2014. Guardians of the Forests [a review of Woodpeckers of the World, by Gerard Gorman]. Birding 46(5): 67.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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