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6 november 2017

"Most people have probably never seen a real, live woodpecker," begins Gerard Gorman's Woodpecker (7). I see them quite often. I am lucky enough to live on a heavily wooded city lot, frequented by red-bellied woodpeckers. You also see Northern Flickers here, on the ground or sometimes on trees or utility poles. Of course, they are more easily heard than seen. Their drumming – communication, not carpentry – is as distinctive a part of North Texas urban wildlife as the cries of crows and the hooting of owls.

Gerard Gorman is a true specialist expert on woodpeckers, with four previous books on the birds (and several on other bird and mammal species) to his credit. Gorman's breadth of knowledge makes Woodpecker definitive, but also turns it at times into a list-oriented catalogue of all things woodpeckerish. Long central chapters recount woodpecker myths and folk beliefs, from all continents except Australia (and Antarctica). Livelier opening chapters discuss the taxonomy, biology, and ethology of the woodpecker.

Gorman closes with a chapter on celebrity woodpeckers. There are three, all North American: the ivory-bill, a bird I've written about obsessively here; the flicker that damaged a space shuttle; and Woody. I remember Woody fondly from my youth, but was never fooled into thinking that he was scientifically accurate. Gorman confirms my impression, pointing out, for instance, that Woody is blue, and no living woodpecker species has that coloration. In the liberties that cartoonists took with Woody, he parallels the Road Runner, another outsized, anthropomorphized, and dubiously decorated cartoon bird. We have road runners in Dallas/ Ft. Worth as well, and they too look little like their cartoon namesakes.

The ivory-bill is a more sobering story. Twelve years ago, I wrote "There's no doubt that the ivory-bill survives in Arkansas," which now seems tragically premature. "Arguments about whether the bird had actually been resurrected or not assumed an almost religious fervour," says Gorman (133), and I am afraid I was one of those who had not seen, and yet had believed. Blessed I may be, but the survival of the largest woodpecker of all was a matter of prosaic documentation in the swamps of Arkansas, and twelve years of research has failed to corroborate initial sightings.

The best parts of Woodpecker concern the natural history of the birds. Their unique lifestyle makes them "keystone species" (24), ones that play major roles in shaping an ecosystem. Woodpeckers rank third only to humans and beavers in the scope of the modifications they make to forests. Their engineering provides habitats for other species, making them also "umbrella" species, and thus "indicator" species as well (25). If woodpeckers are around, things are probably going OK in the local environment. When they start to disappear, you might start to worry.

In order to process that much timber, woodpeckers have developed a unique physiology. Gorman addresses the famous question of whether woodpeckers get headaches (they don't seem to). Whether actively woodworking or merely drumming (a racket for which they seem to prefer plastic sheets and tin roofs), woodpeckers cushion their brains with some ergonomic adaptations, including superbly insulated skulls. The concussion crisis in American football may some day be alleviated by technologies based on woodpecker anatomy.

Woodpeckers do not make good pets. For one thing, they will peck their way out of cages, and demolish your house if they get loose. But more importantly, they are just not oriented towards humans. Their supreme independence has made them symbols of life and death, trickster figures, creators, and nurturers: though they were supplanted in later lore by the she-wolf, it seems that early Roman legend gave the woodpecker equal status in fostering Romulus and Remus.

I don't know of a better introduction to woodpeckers as they relate to all things human and inhuman. If you are keen on watching or listening to birds, and live outside of Australia (or Antarctica), Gerard Gorman's book deserves a place on your reference shelf.

Gorman, Gerard. Woodpecker. London: Reaktion, 2017.