For the Birds Radio Program: Gepetto the Baby Pileated Woodpecker, Part 3

Original Air Date: June 30, 1998

Laura’s time with Gepetto came to an end, leaving her with lots of memories of just how Pileated Woodpeckers learn how to find food and deal with other Pileateds.

Duration: 3′50″


Three weeks ago a woman brought me a fledgling Pileated Woodpecker that she’d found along the highway in Two Harbors. He had presumably been hit by a car. He was hardly a little guy—almost full grown when he arrived—but was still very baby-like and dependent in many ways. I let my rehabber’s license expire last year, but this was an exceptional case, because I was going to be spending a whole week near the Boundary Waters in perfect Pileated habitat, so I brought him along.

Gepetto, as I named him for another wood carver, was a joy to watch over the week in the Boundary Waters. He was like a toddler in a highchair, dropping insects and flakes of bark to the ground and watching them fall. And like a toddler, he tasted everything, probing under the edges of bark with his long slurpy tongue. He learned to eat the insects that adhered to his tongue before he learned to eat insects he could actually see. For a few days he would pick up spiders and insects in his beak and then drop them, apparently for the fun of it, but in mid-week he suddenly discovered that bugs walking about in the open are the exact same insects that taste so good when his tongue pulls them from inside crevices. It was fun watching the lightbulb go on in his little bird brain whenever he made a discovery like this.

There was a Pileated Woodpecker pair nesting in the same area where I was releasing Gepetto. When Gepetto first heard their voices, he called right back, but they attacked him mercilessly as an invader on their territory. So Gepetto’s first lesson was to stay very, very quiet when they were about.

Gepetto made a lovely roommate in my cabin. My kids Katie and Tommy enjoyed having him around, too. He was a low-maintenance sort of guy, investigating crevices in the flooring, perching on a stout birch branch we’d found for him, or snoozing on the back of the sofa. But as the week progressed, he became less and less interested in being indoors, and started wanting to spend more and more time outside. He was a fine flier, accurate and swift, and I felt a special thrill every time he flew out of a tree right to me. At first he was so inefficient an eater that he needed a lot of supplemental feedings, but little by little he got better and better at catching enough bugs to sustain himself. We were leaving for home on Saturday, and Friday night he decided to spend the night outside. I think I was secretly wishing that he enjoyed semi­ captivity—he would have made a lovely education bird—but clearly he wanted to be free as a bird. He wanted little food from me Saturday morning when he came down for a visit, and resented being brought into the cabin at all, so we decided it was time to release him.

Fortunately, people at the YMCA camp will be looking out for him, so I left some food with the program director, just in case of an emergency. Now every time I see a Pileated Woodpecker I’ll wonder how my little Gepetto is doing. Pileated Woodpeckers have long been one of my favorite birds-there is something so magical in their wild calls and pterodactyl-like bearing that I feel like the luckiest woman on the planet to have had such a close friendship with one, even for a short time. My life is richer for having intersected his path. I hope I’ve given him at least a few fond memories of me, as well.