Book Review: The Owl and the Woodpecker

OwlWoodpecker0950The Owl and the Woodpecker: Encounters with North America’s Most Iconic Birds, by Paul Bannick, The Mountaineers Books (, 2008, 200 pages, $ 26.95.

Maybe I’ve spent too many years looking down, scanning the ground for wildlife (I am, after all, a herpetologist), but it wasn’t until photographer Paul Bannick’s The Owl and the Woodpecker that I realized how critical a keystone species woodpeckers are to their winged cousins. In much the same way ground squirrels interweave the earth with burrows that become superhighways and refugia for fellow ground-dwelling insects, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and even some birds (say, burrowing owls), so too does the woodpecker riddle the woods with cavities that become the tenements and penthouses for owls and an impressive array of woodland creatures.

Combining the best of both worlds, Bannick both shows and tells the rich natural histories of these two indicator species through well-researched text and jaw-dropping photography. Bannick, always fascinated by the glimpses of owls and woodpeckers fortune put in his path as a youth, decided in 2005 to photograph every North American woodpecker and owl as a way of drawing attention to these species’ plight and the questionable future of the sensitive habitats they depend on for survival. The result is a captivating compendium of facts and photography, a true testimony to Bannick’s mastery of light, timing, birding, and patience. In the scores of photographs Bannick carefully selected for these pages, his timing with the shutter freezes in place cascades of wood chips, wriggling insects bound for ravenous fledglings, the spray of feathers on touchdown, the buoyancy of wingtips on liftoff. Every page is one delight after the next, capturing the prismatic color and charisma of these spectacular birds.

Bannick’s photography unabashedly venerates the owl and the woodpecker, and rightfully so. If nothing else, Bannick’s work serves to remind us why it is so important to look up – to catch sight of these treetop totems.

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