For the Birds Radio Program: Gepetto the Baby Pileated Woodpecker, Part 2
Last week I got a baby Pileated Woodpecker named Gepetto, who I’m trying to teach how to be wild. I let my rehab license expire last year, but got informal permission to keep him temporarily since I was going to be spending time near the Boundary Waters this week and knew I could spend a lot of time acclimating him to his proper habitat. I’ve learned more about Pileated Woodpeckers in a few days than I had learned in more than two decades of birding.
The funnest thing has been seeing how placid Pileateds are. When I drove to Burntside Lake, Gepetto perched on a chunk of birch in an open box in the front passenger seat the whole way, watching the world rush by with the intense interest of a dog who passed obedience school with flying colors. Not once on the whole 3-hour ride did he leave the box. On and off he snoozed, and a couple of times he politely called out to me from hunger, but waited patiently until I could find a good spot to pull over and feed him. He was great company, and spotted several ravens and an eagle that I otherwise would have missed.
In my cabin, he spent most of his indoor time perched on the same log in the same box, set up by the door so he could look out and take in all the sights and sounds. One of the coolest sounds to him was the yelling of a pair of nearby nesting Pileateds. Many times when he heard it he yelled right back. This worked out fine while we were inside the cabin, but got considerably more awkward whenever I took him outside, because the moment he called out, one or the other of the pair would fly in, affronted that any other Pileated would dare enter their kingdom. The first time this happened, Gepetto was about 10 feet up in a virgin pine. When the female flew in, Gepetto seemed utterly delighted to see her, and sure enough she flew to the trunk about five feet above him and hitched her way down towards him, jerking her head back and forth as she approached. When she got right next to him, I thought—and I think Gepetto thought—maybe she would adopt him and take care of him, but instead, she started ripping out his tummy feathers.
He looked distressed and shocked, and instantly shrank against the tree, as if rooted, but that didn’t help. The one instinct almost all baby birds seem to have is that when they are scared or in trouble, they should always get as high up as they can, where their mommy will surely be able to find them. The moment this instinct kicked in, Gepetto started climbing furiously. And with every jerk up the tree, he drew more impossibly out of reach. I yelled to him, and he called down to me several times, looking right at me, but something deeper inside him than his eyes kept pulling him upwards. Fortunately, when he finally reached the first branches of this ancient tree, way high up there, he got confused and tripped, and plummeted out of the tree, catching himself barely in time to fly to another tree just before he hit the ground. Now he was only a couple of feet up, and I finally retrieved him. Boy was he happy to see me! He instantly snuggled into the crook of my arm and shrank down, looking all around for the angry Pileated.
Meanwhile, the male had also flown in, and the two of them swooped from tree to tree, trying to get a better look at the invaders. I’ve never had so many close looks at Pileateds before, and I’m sure no other Pileateds have ever looked at me so closely before, either. Throughout the week, the two of them kept trying to drive poor Gepetto from their territory, and throughout the week he kept close to my side whenever he heard their swooping wings or their lusty yells. He was learning the ways of his kind, but so far, he seemed to prefer the company of people to Pileateds.