Thursday, September 4, 2014

Review: Woodpeckers of the World

Woodpeckers have fascinated me since before we became birders. I remember looking up Red-bellied Woodpecker in a general field guide of Florida's wildlife a few weeks before I officially met my “spark” bird. I suppose it served as the kindling. And Pileated Woodpecker was one of the first species we set ourselves as a target to find. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb (pun intended) in thinking that this fascination is nearly universal among birders (and even non-birders), and that woodpeckers are truly among the most captivating groups of birds.

A comprehensive new photographic guide, Woodpeckers of the World, by Gerard Gorman, capitalizes on this interest by treating each of the world’s 239 woodpecker species individually, with detailed information provided about each, covering different aspects of their life history. Within each species account, usually two or three photos are shown, most of which are are absolutely stunning. Alongside these are brief sections exploring field marks, vocalizations, drumming, status, habitat, range, taxonomy, similar species, and foraging.

Within these pages, we learn just how astoundingly diverse the family Picidae really is. American birders are most familiar with variations of red, white, and black, with occasional splashes of yellow (Lewis’s Woodpecker excepted). Contrast this with the warm, tropical tones of a White-browed Piculet, or the rich colors of a Chestnut Woodpecker. We don’t have anything here that even compares with the hypnotic patterning of a Buff-rumped Woodpecker. Discovering all of this variety is the real joy of flipping through the pages of this book. 

The book’s introductory chapters discuss woodpeckers as a whole, describing what they have in common, and what sets them apart from other groups. The species accounts are organized taxonomically, with each genus introduced in a single paragraph relating some facts about its member species that make the genus unique. These introductory sections are all narrative, and make for great reading. It’s here that we we learn how truly bizarre (for woodpeckers) the Wrynecks are, with their weak bills and soft tails, which don’t excavate their own holes, and perch rather than climb. On the other hand, the individual species accounts, tend to be a bit dry because of the way information is broken up into sections, rather than flow as a compelling story about the bird. 

But while this isn’t necessarily a book that you can read straight through from cover to cover, it’s handy if you want to reference a particular species. This past weekend, for instance, we took our first trip into the Oregon mountains, where we hoped to see new species like White-headed, Black-backed, and American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and Williamson’s Sapsuckers. Before heading out, I reviewed the species accounts for each, which helped me to understand the best habitats for finding them, and what to listen for. It also explained how to differentiate between Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and described which subspecies occur in our area.

But the pictures are the real draw of this book, and what really make it worth owning. The photographs are beautiful, and wonderfully illustrate the incredible diversity of woodpeckers. You won’t find every plumage, or every subspecies shown, but across the over 750 photos there’s plenty of variety to salivate over. Considering the number of woodpecker species that are still difficult to access, or are simply not well understood, it’s easy to see that this book was a huge and impressive undertaking. Most birders, no matter how ambitious, will only ever see a fraction of these species in real life; those who share my fascination with this family will want to check out Woodpeckers of the World, and start fantasizing about what they’re missing.

Images used with permission from Woodpeckers of the World A Photographic Guide by Gerard Gorman (Firefly Books 2014)


  1. that's a family whose reunions I would want to attend!!!

    Thanks for the write up Messr Martens. The eye candy alone on this post, much less in the book, much less the information, is quite salivating.

    Those poor, poor Australians.

    1. I have a feeling the Australians aren't losing any sleep over it, but I definitely score woodpeckers as a point in our favor. There is certainly a good deal to salivate over in this book, and strongly recommend reading it attired in one's best bib.