Africa is not the greatest continent if one is mad on woodpeckers. South of the Sahara, it accommodates, as breeders, one wryneck, one piculet and about 27 true woodpeckers - all the latter from only one of six tribal groups. Only Australasia is worse off, with no woodpeckers at all! Most of the 214 species covered by the book occur in the tropical forests of South America and South East Asia, with many also in the temperate forests of Europe and North America.
The book is divided into three sections. The first 35 pages introduce the layout of the book and the biology of woodpeckers. Then follow 64 full-colour plates, each opposite a page of detailed captions. Finally, forming the bulk of the book, detailed species accounts cover 226 pages. The bibliography and index occupy the final 12 pages.
The whole feel of the book is solid, from hard cover to pages dense with print and information. The typeface is generally too small to make this a book for casual browsing - the bibliography is positively microscopic but it is a book for accurate and detailed reference. The initial overview covers relationships and taxonomy, distribution, morphology and mechanics, plumage and moult, food and foraging, ecological sexual dimorphism, habitat, behaviour, reproduction and sociality, and woodpeckers and man. It details many aspects of woodpecker biology, and it also offers a number of useful and interesting insights into their ecology.
The plates are excellent, at least for the species with which I am familiar. There is considerable attention to detail, always showing both sexes of this dichromatic group, and often several different races. The plates are not crowded, their layout is regular but attractive, and they certainly offer a major reason for owning this book.
The species accounts appear detailed and thorough, judging again from the species that I know something about. Each starts with the English and scientific names, together with variations. Then follow sections on identification, distribution (plus a map), movements, habitat, description, measurements, geographical variation, voice, habits, food, breeding and references. Plates and text are clearly cross-referenced.
This book provides an excellent and compact monograph on the woodpeckers: it updates and extends the last great monograph on the group, by Lester Short in 1982. It is just small enough to be taken to the field, but will serve mainly as an authoritative one-stop reference work to these beautiful and highly specialised birds.