Stephen Shunk loves woodpeckers. You will, too

Puget Sound Bird Fest in Edmonds
By Brian Soergel | Sep 14, 2017
Courtesy of: Stephen Shunk Stephen Shunk shot this picture of a woodpecker, one of thousands in his portfolio.
Puget Sound Bird Fest

When: Friday through Sunday, Sept. 15-17
Where: Frances Anderson Center, 700 Main St., and the Plaza Room, 650 Main St.
Tickets: Most events are free. See Bird Fest schedule. There will be speakers, a live raptor show, exhibitors, artists and vendors, plus guided walks, boat cruises, field workshops, a native plant sale and more.


The woodpecker. Is there any other bird with a more perfect name?

It. Pecks. Wood.

For Stephen Shunk, the woodpecker is so much more. It’s a fun little guy, diverse, easy to spot, amenable to photos. It’s also taken up the better part of 20 years of his life, as he’s led tours all over the world to watch them. And he’s spent hours on research, last year publishing a book called “The Peterson Guide to Woodpeckers of North America.”

If woodpeckers are your thing, and they would be after 15 minutes with Shunk, you won’t want to miss his keynote speech Friday during the annual Puget Sound Bird Fest in Edmonds. It’s called “How Woodpeckers Can Save the World (Or at Least Your Local Neighborhood).”

A news release describing Shunk’s appearance – where he will share photos and sign copies of his book – says that “Steve will take you inside woodpecker anatomy to explain the fascinating behaviors we love to watch.”

“I have a lot of favorite woodpecker topics, but anatomy is one of my favorites,” he said over the phone from his home in Bend, Oregon. “Woodpeckers are one of the most specialized bird families in the world. They have external characteristics that people can see, but their internal anatomy is super-specialized to their lifestyle.”

How so?

“The woodpecker has sub-specializations, like in the shapes of their tongues and the muscles they use for flying. It’s just fascinating, especially the cranial anatomy. You know, doctors who study concussions often study woodpeckers, because they want to know why they don’t get concussions when they slam their heads against trees. They learn from them to build better helmets for football players, motorcyclists and bicyclists.”

If you’ve seen or heard a woodpecker or watched “Woody Woodpecker” (cue the staccato laugh), you know their beaks make a sharp, rapping racket as they peck away.

Shunk said some dig into trees searching for food. But most are simply looking to build nests in cavities of dead or dying trees.

Of course, woodpeckers stop being cute when they’re drumming on your home at 3 in the morning.

Shunk gets this.

“When I talk to the general public – nonbirders – about woodpeckers, the first question I often get is, ‘How do I get that woodpecker to stop drilling on my house?’ But this is a problem we’ve created ourselves by removing dead and dying trees from the landscape.”

So the crafty birds will hunt around. They’ll investigate your home by tap-tap-tapping on siding to gauge its hollowness. They’ll create an opening and run a quick inspection. If it doesn’t suit them, they’ll move a couple of feet over or up, and try again. And again.

So why do they sometimes peck at metal roof vents?

“During courtship and breeding season,” Shunk said, “they will drum on the metal part of your house as territorial and courtship proclamations. Drumming is the woodpecker’s equivalent of singing – they’re not songbirds.”

For someone who knows all this and is crazy for woodpeckers, Shunk would appear to live in heaven: Bend and Sisters, both in Oregon, where he moved in 1997 after living in Texas and the Bay Area. He says the area on the eastern slopes of the Cascades has “half of the North American woodpecker species breeding here in startling concentrations.”

The heart of the woodpecker diversity is centered in the Metolius River basin, northwest of Sisters near a tiny enclave called Camp Sherman.

“I had a group go to a stand of trees, aspens in particular, and we had 11 nests of six species of woodpeckers over 2 acres. This basin is really amazing.”

Shunk conducts tours in the Northwest, but also worldwide through his Paradise Bird Tours. Upcoming locations include Borneo, Peru, the French Antilles, Mexico, Honduras, Taiwan and Japan.

“We do a regular tour that comes through Edmonds,” Shunk said. “It’s a winter trip from Vancouver, B.C., to the Skagit Valley and over to Port Townsend. When we come back we take the ferry to Edmonds.”

In addition to his tours, Shunk has coordinated bird surveys for various agencies and organizations in Oregon and California, including research with the Institute for Bird Populations on the black-backed woodpecker. He also has worked with the Cavity Conservation Initiative and taught workshops for the Mono Lake Committee.

“Woodpeckers, in addition to their amazing diversity,” Shunk said, “are just charismatic as hell. They’re easy to watch, they’re bigger than most birds, they’re entertaining. They don’t have many predators, so you can really watch them up close. Just fascinating.”

On Saturday, Shunk will lead two guided walks focused on finding woodpeckers in local forests. Pre-registration required.

The keynote event with Stephen Shunk is 7:30-9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15, in the Edmonds Plaza Room, 650 Main St. Doors open at 7 p.m. Admission is free.


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