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1 April 2012 The Black Woodpecker—A Monograph on Dryocopus martius
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Because of their peculiar habits and appearance, woodpeckers (Picidae) figure among the most charismatic birds. This is especially true for the large-sized species belonging to the Campephilini tribe: the logcocks (Dryocopus spp.) and ivory-bills (Campephilus spp.). The world's most widely distributed representative from that tribe is the Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius), which is found across Eurasia, from Western Europe to the Russian Far East and Japan. Unlike some of the other large woodpeckers, the Black Woodpecker is generally not considered threatened with extinction (with a few regional exceptions). So, is there a need for a whole monograph on a bird species that is neither threatened nor hunted as game? Yes, without any doubt. Across its range, the Black Woodpecker has fascinated people for ages. It is the heavyweight woodpecker whose drumming is heard at long distances during cold spring mornings, the evasive black shadow haunting large forests, the woodcarver leaving impressive signs in trees and logs. From a scientific perspective, this species has received much attention in ornithological research, ranking fifth among all the worl''s woodpeckers in number of scientific articles in the last decade or so (Mikusiński 2006). Still, although some ornithological books provide fairly detailed accounts on the Black Woodpecker (e.g., Cramp 1994), I am not aware of any book in English entirely devoted to this species—that is, before the recent publication of this monograph by Gerard Gorman. It is not surprising that no English-language book has been published on the Black Woodpecker in the past, considering that the species does not occur in any English-speaking country. Still, English is probably the most appropriate language for reaching the variety of potential readers within and outside this woodpecker's distribution range.

In this elegantly written book, Gorman excels at communicating his passion for the Black Woodpecker. He covers virtually all aspects of the species' biology, including taxonomy and relationships, anatomy and identification, behavior, distribution and status, breeding, habitat use at multiple scales, and food and foraging. The book contains an interesting mixture of facts from the scientific literature and personal accounts from observations of the species. Considering that the Black Woodpecker's distribution range stretches over tens of different countries, reviewing the literature on the species is a challenge. The mission is accomplished: in addition to English papers in scientific journals, this book provides nice coverage of relevant regional literature published in various languages and also builds on personal communications with experts on the species from several countries. As to Gorman's accounts of his own observations of the species, they contribute to vivid descriptions of the woodpecker's behavior.

The book is well thought out, to the extent that it is difficult to think of any major topic of general interest that could be missing. In fact, there is—in my opinion—only one significant weakness to this book: substantial redundancy among the different chapters. For example, one can find nearly identical information about the woodpecker's mammalian predators and secondary cavity users both in chapters about breeding and cavity use and in the chapter addressing relationships with other wildlife. This may be an advantage for readers using the book as a reference work, as it increases the likelihood of finding specific information. Still, those reading the book from cover to cover may get annoyed by such repetitions of facts, which often are presented in very similar forms. An additional drawback is that, although there is a species index at the end of the book, there is no subject index, which means that readers using the book as a reference may need to browse to find the desired pieces of information. However, my opinion is that the qualities of this book—in both content and form—clearly overshadow these limitations.

One major strength of the book is that it reaches far beyond a simple description of the Black Woodpecker's biological features. In that respect, the sections that address relationships between the woodpecker and other species (including humans) are particularly interesting. For example, the book includes a thorough account of the use of Black Woodpecker cavities by other species of birds and by mammals, as well as some information about invertebrates using those cavities. Relationships with humans are also well covered, from cultural aspects (e.g., tales) to conflicts such as damage to buildings inflicted by the woodpecker and possible threats posed by humans. On that latter point, a significant part of the book is dedicated to the effects of commercial forest management. There used to be much concern about the potential effects of forestry on this large woodpecker. However, current knowledge suggests that the Black Woodpecker is fairly tolerant of most common forms of modern forestry, notably through its ability to incorporate separate patches of forest into its home range, to forage in logged areas, and to use some types of degraded forests. Still, Gorma''s review of the topic highlights the fact that close-to-nature forestry is more likely to provide suitable habitat than highly intensive forms of industrial forest management.

The book is of appropriate size and has a pleasant general appearance. There are relatively few figures, but the introductory page of each chapter is ornamented by the beautiful artwork of Szabolcs Kókay. Many figures are presented on color plates concentrated at the end of the book. These include a variety of sonograms and oscillograms, color drawings of the Black Woodpecker and its congeners with associated distribution maps, as well as several photographs showing various aspects of the woodpecker's behavior. In some instances it would have been better if those figures had been incorporated in the main text instead of being assembled at the end of the book, but I assume that this would have been problematic from a technical perspective.

A key question is whether this book provides anything more than the detailed accounts of the Black Woodpecker's biology given in previous works such as Cramp et al. (1994), Winkler et al. (1995), and Gorman (2004). The answer is yes. Undoubtedly, this book is the most comprehensive source of information on the Black Woodpecker published to date. Moreover, it is written in an accessible style, which means that a variety of readers, including professional ornithologists, birdwatchers, and the general public, are likely to enjoy the book. Hence, it would surely make a useful contribution to any university, municipal, or private library.


  1. S. Cramp , ED. 1994. The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom. Google Scholar

  2. G. Gorman 2004. Woodpeckers of Europe: A Study of the European Picidae. Bruce Coleman, Bucks, United Kingdom. Google Scholar

  3. G. Mikusiński 2006. Woodpeckers: Distribution, conservation, and research in a global perspective. Annales Zoologici Fennici 43:86–95. Google Scholar

  4. H. Winkler , D. A. Christie , and D. Nurney . 1995. Woodpeckers: An Identification Guide to the Woodpeckers of the World. Houghton Mifflin, Boston. Google Scholar

Jean-Michel Roberge "The Black Woodpecker—A Monograph on Dryocopus martius," The Auk 129(2), (1 April 2012).
Published: 1 April 2012

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