Friday, July 15, 2016

A Pair of Book Reviews: Woodpeckers

Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America. Stephen A. Shunk. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Boston. 2016.

Woodpeckers of the World: A Photographic Guide. Gerard Gorman. Firefly Books. Buffalo, New York. 2014.
[Also the same as Woodpeckers of the World: A Complete Guide. Gerard Gorman. Bloomsbury. London. 2014.]


Steve Shunk is a personal friend of mine. He lives in Sisters, Oregon among the huge ponderosa pines in the middle of the "Woodpecker Wonderland," where he leads tours locally and throughout the world. He has a very engaging and enthusiastic personality. I knew he'd be the perfect author for this subject. When I heard it was ready to be printed, I pre-ordered my copy.

Thus it is that this new Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America is chocked full of very informative material presented in a very conversational style. I especially enjoyed the introduction--40 pages of facts, figures, and photos on the amazing anatomy, behavior, and conservation of North American woodpeckers.

Then comes the species accounts. Shunk covers 23 woodpecker species found north of Mexico in great detail. Each account starts with a delightfully intimate and friendly 3 or 4 paragraph introduction to the bird--perhaps its initial discovery, former abundance, or a unique aspect of its biology.

Major headings in each account are Distribution (including maps), Habitat, Detection, Visual Identification, Behavior, and Conservation. Plumages and molts, subspecies (including those found outside North America), courtship, parenting, and foraging behaviors are some of the subtopics under the main headings. Each account then concludes with a list of references that one can cross-reference to the extensive bibliography.

The book ends with acknowledgements; several appendices with tabular data of physical measurements, nest site data, etc.; a glossary, that bibliography I mentioned, and an index.

This 308-page book is brimming with photos--not just identification photos of adult birds, but nests and nestlings, habitats, and interesting behaviors.

This book is thoroughly researched and well-planned and executed. It is a joy to read. I think it will become a true reference work and be popular for the everyday reader, as well.



Now we switch gears to Gerard Gorman's Woodpeckers of the World: A Photographic Guide. Gorman, a world renowned woodpecker expert, covers all of the world's wrynecks, piculets, and woodpeckers--239 species--in 528 pages. Thus, compared to Shunk's work, Gorman has only 1/5th a much room to devote to each species.

In order to accomplish this feat, Gorman's text is necessarily brief, almost telegraphic in places. There are nearly as many photos per species, but they are 1/2, 1/4, 1/6th page, rather than full and 2/3rds page in Shunk's book. The 22-page introduction covers pretty much the same material as Shunk's first 40 pages, but is less conversational, it's more a concise listing of the facts.

Species accounts headings are Identification, Vocalisations, Drumming, Status, Habitat, Range (including a map), Taxonomy and variation, Similar species, and Food and foraging. Much of the behavioral section so emphasized in Shunk is absent in Gorman, including breeding biology, courtship, parenting, and territory defense. Other topics that had to be left out include plumages and molts, conservation, and population changes.

It's hard not to compare the two books directly, but Shunk's work is a reference guide to well-studied species, while Gorman's is a photographic guide that includes 10 times as many species, many of which are rare or poorly-known. Indeed, there are a few species in the book that are so poorly known that there are no photos.

One appreciated addition to Gorman's work is an introduction and overview to each new genus of woodpecker. This primarily discusses taxonomy, which helps in the understanding of how the many species are grouped together and are different from other groups.

This book is also well-researched and ends with an extensive bibliography.

The variety of woodpeckers and their kin in the world is truly amazing. Mr. Gorman gives us a glimpse into that diversity. Blond-crested Woodpecker. Is that not the most magnificent bird? Wait! Maybe it's the Red-necked Woodpecker....

Both of these books have something wonderful to offer those specially intrigued by this marvelous group of fascinating birds.


If you wish to view or purchase these books from Amazon and give me a few cents off my next book purchases, here are the links:

Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America

Woodpeckers of the World: A Photographic Guide