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At The Top of the Pecking Order

A review by Caitlin Kight

Woodpecker, by Gerard Gorman

Reaktion Books, 2018

180 pages, softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14922

Gerard Gorman’s Woodpecker is the latest volume in Reaktion Books’ Animal Series, a handsome collection of lavishly illustrated books that explore the natural and cultural history of a range of iconic animals. By examining the distribution, behavior, and ecology of each species and assessing how these traits affected the ways in which the animals have crossed paths with humans over the years, the books provide insights into why humans hold certain attitudes towards these species, and how our opinions have, in turn, affected the animals themselves. At a time when hundreds, if not thousands, of species are thought to go extinct each year, this sort of analysis and commentary is not just interesting, but also vital for reminding people that animals are good for both our ecosystems and our emotional wellbeing.

Before I heap too much more praise on either the Animal Series in general or Woodpecker specifically, I should probably disclose that I authored an entry in the series in 2015. I had found out about the collection after being asked to write a meta-review of the bird-related titles that had been published, and subsequently sent my own successful pitch to Reaktion. Rather than viewing this as a conflict of interest, I prefer to see it as very rigorous and extensive background research: Not only have I read nearly all of Woodpecker’s ornithological companions in the Animal Series, but I also have an insider’s knowledge of how difficult it is to condense all knowledge about an entire animal family into approximately 150 pages.

I hope this preface will convince you that I know what I am talking about, and am not being in any way self-serving, when I say that Woodpecker is a truly wonderful addition to the series, and is, in fact, one of the best entries to date. Before writing Woodpecker, the author had already penned three other books about the Picidae (Woodpeckers of Europe, The Black Woodpecker, and Woodpeckers of the World), and his expertise is obvious. Whereas I knew relatively little about my titular species before starting research for my book, Gorman has clearly lived and breathed woodpeckers for years; his familiarity with their movements and personalities—their jizz, to use the birding parlance—is obvious in every statement, giving heft to each point he makes.

My favorite thing about Woodpecker is its organization. This may not sound like an exciting trait to compliment, but I speak from experience when I say that it is astoundingly hard to figure out how to arrange a bunch of facts into a cohesive and interesting tale rather than a mind-numbingly boring list of data. In a book that looks at both natural and cultural history, the most obvious technique is to start off with the former and then move on to the latter, so that you effectively have a two-part volume; this is far and away the most common arrangement throughout the rest of the Animal Series, including my own entry. In Woodpecker, however, Gorman melds the two throughout, which makes sense when you think about the fact that the biological characteristics of an animal will influence its interactions with humans, which, in turn, will influence whether and in what ways we incorporate the species into our cultures. All the Animal Series books make this point in some way or another, but I haven’t read another that is structurally designed to consistently emphasize this reality.

Gorman’s arrangement derives from the different personas assumed by his focal birds: The Carpenter, The Drummer, The Mythical Woodpecker, and The Magic Woodpecker. These chapter headings—even the last two—focus on the behaviors and ecological contributions of the woodpecker. Gorman lays the groundwork for this in a brief first chapter, which outlines the evolutionary history of this bird family and then describes how its members act as keystone, umbrella, and indicator species. As much as I personally value knowledge for its own sake, I’m also a big advocate of framing information in a way that helps people understand why that knowledge is important, relevant, and useful, so I appreciate how Gorman wastes no time in arguing that woodpeckers matter and then shapes the remainder of his book in a way to drive that message home. 

Furthermore, I like that he doesn’t shy away from defining fundamental ecological terminology such as “keystone species,” “primary cavity users,” and “temporal separation”; we are living in a moment when scientific literacy is not, perhaps, what it should be, so it is important for scientific communicators to impart this sort of wisdom whenever and wherever they can. In fact, I felt that Gorman could have explained some other terms, too; “endemic” and “biomimicry” are two examples. The Animal Series is meant to appeal to, and be appropriate for, a fairly wide audience, so on the off chance that the book should come into the hands of younger or less scientific readers, I would have erred on the side of caution. 

Likewise, I would have stayed away from less scientifically rigorous language that might undermine the book’s credibility. For example, Gorman writes that “woodpeckers are far from bird-brained.” I understand that he is writing tongue-in-cheek here, but the phrase perpetuates an inaccurate and unhelpful stereotype. I also cringed at “A bird that has a strong pair-bond, as most woodpeckers do, is to be respected.” This sounds awfully judgmental, as though the author is applying human values to different species in different contexts; such a sentiment is not very objective, and seems to fail to consider the fact that species’ reproductive behaviors are generally highly adaptive, designed not to adhere to a particular moral code but to produce an optimal number and quality of offspring. Fortunately, passages like these are few and far between.

Although the bulk of Gorman’s personal anecdotes (including the lovely nest-building story that unfolds in the introduction) involve European woodpeckers, he ensures a good geographical balance throughout the book. If my own experiences are representative, it can be extremely challenging to locate detailed, verifiable information from certain regions; barriers of physical distance, language, documentation, and original scholarly research can make it difficult to assess the relevance of anything but the most prominent and ubiquitous species—such as eagles—in other cultures. For example, it’s pretty easy to make an exhaustive search of Greek myths, but it’s much tougher to uncover ancient African stories and practices. I was impressed by the diversity achieved in Woodpecker, which includes information on peoples from Siberia to India to Zimbabwe to California.

Particularly noteworthy are the number and quality of tales from indigenous American tribes; this volume has more than I have encountered in any other book in the Animal Series. The idea that “representation matters” is increasingly prevalent in contemporary conversations about equality, and it is exciting to find a popular natural history book like Woodpecker containing so many legends from such a diversity of Native American peoples. Further, these stories are treated in a very respectful way. I couldn’t help but compare this to my own book, in which one of the few references to indigenous beliefs was a description of a naturopathic remedy that most Western readers would likely find both distasteful and, I feared, “backward.” Obviously, you can only work with the material that you’re given, but Gorman does an exceptional job canvassing a wide range of cultures and putting their ancient wisdom and stories on an equal footing with those that most readers are likely familiar with.

Woodpecker diversity is also acknowledged here, not just in the first chapter’s discussion of taxonomy but also in the range of photographs found throughout the book. All the Animal Series volumes are gorgeously illustrated, so Woodpecker is no exception here, but it’s noticeable how Gorman has painstakingly selected images of species from around the world, depicting a wide range of behaviors and displaying the wealth of morphological traits and adaptations that characterize the family. The piculet on p. 57 contrasts with the Pileated Woodpecker on p. 79, for example; the two differ strikingly and significantly in size, beak shape, and coloration. Then there’s the foraging Streak-throated Woodpecker on p. 104, engaging in a very different food-finding behavior from that exhibited by the Acorn Woodpeckers who created the granary shown on p. 47. With contrasts like these, Gorman subtly reiterates and emphasizes the natural history he describes in the text.

No matter how many woodpecker images you see, though, it’s hard not to stop, examine, and think “wow.” Just try to rush past the Chestnut-colored Woodpecker on p. 66; it’s impossible. A lifelong birder who has seen woodpeckers on three different continents and even handled a few while mist-netting, I still feel lucky every time I catch a glimpse of one in the wild—and when I do, I watch for as long as I can keep the bird in sight, captivated, with a smile on my face. This feeling of wonderment and appreciation is something that Gorman communicates beautifully in Woodpecker, from start to finish. Readers who already love woodpeckers will identify, while the uninitiated are likely to feel their curiosity piqued. 

Both those groups will probably feel unsettled by the last pages of the final chapter, where, inevitably, the focus turns to the uncertain future of the Picidae. Some readers might find the detailed list of endangered species and conservation concerns overly lengthy and too specific, while others might suggest that it is important for us to be confronted with the full extent of the problem so that we are more likely to act now, before it’s too late. I won’t steal Gorman’s thunder by directly quoting his extremely clever final two sentences; however, I will say that this entire paragraph exemplifies the compelling writing that can be found throughout Woodpecker, and persuasively demonstrates not just how lucky we humans are to have these birds in our forests and our cultures, but also how lucky we readers are to have the point made so elegantly in such a delightful book.

– Caitlin Kight is a Senior Academic Developer at the University of Exeter and an Adjunct Fellow at the Dakshin Foundation. A science communicator with a background in avian bioacoustics and behavioral ecology, Caitlin edits and writes for Current Conservation magazine and contributes to a variety of other natural history publications.

Recommended citation: 

Kight, C. 2019. At the top of the pecking order [a review of Woodpecker, by Gerard Gorman]. Birding 51(1): 67–68.

 

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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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