For the Birds Radio Program: Gepetto the Baby Pileated Woodpecker, Part 1

Original Air Date: June 11, 1998

Laura just received a baby Pileated Woodpecker for rehab.

Duration: 3′57″


Last week, a woman brought me a Pileated Woodpecker that she had found on the highway in Two Harbors. It was a young male, recently fledged, with the start of a red crest and a funky look about him. He had a bit of blood on his wing and seemed disoriented but was otherwise in fairly good shape though, oddly, his feathers showed evidence of an inappropriate diet or some other problem that appeared longstanding. I’m not sure what had happened—there are a host of scenarios that could explain what a baby Pileated was doing all by himself along a highway, from a chopped down nest tree to simply getting lost. He was more hungry than a single day could account for—he may well have been lost for days before he made it to the road.

I’ve never before held a Pileated Woodpecker. What a delightful thing to do! He was easily as big as a baby crow, and as gangly, too, with toes every bit as big as crow feet, only arranged two in front and two behind instead of three in front. His crest feathers were still shaggy and short, with his skull showing between them, and giving him a punk appearance, accentuated by his long, skinny, neck. Actually, all birds have pretty much the same long, skinny neck, but Pileateds also have short neck feathers with a long black center stripe bordered with white to make the neck look even longer and skinnier, and their herky jerky movements underscore the effect. When it comes right down to it, Pileateds are downright funny looking.

All woodpeckers spend most of their day closely examining tree bark or the ground for food, and have forward-facing eyes to provide binocular vision. This little one’s curious eyes gave him an interesting expression as he cocked his head this way and that studying me. I decided to name him Gepetto after another little woodcutter.

Gepetto was very hungry, and scarfed down mouthful after mouthful of baby bird mix—the kind you get at a pet shop for handfeeding baby parrots. Then he hunkered down for a nap. He spent the next few days feeding a lot and resting, but quickly became more and more interested in his surroundings. I put him in a box, with a hole to peek out and a chunk of wood to perch on, and he quickly found the top of the perch much more satisfying, allowing him to view everything going on. Most of the time he’s pretty placid, but every now and then he gets into explorer mode and starts wandering through the house. He immediately figured out how to climb the stairs, and had a major surprise when he reached the top and discovered a full-length mirror. The moment he saw his reflection, he went bonkers, making the Pileated banshee yell and jerking his head back and forth. Of course the image made the same odd display right back to him, encouraging him to continue, a sight that would make even the most humor-impaired human laugh uproariously.

I took Gepetto to the ant hill in my backyard a few times, but although he liked poking holes in the ground, he didn’t seem to have a clue that ants are a Pileated delicacy. Then I held a bunch of mealworms in my hand and set them on the ground in front of him, but he didn’t seem to understand that they were food, either. He was as fixated on his eyedropper as a baby sometimes gets on a particular bottle or pacifier, and didn’t seem at all ready to start solid foods. He fluttered his tongue in and out, testing how it worked and tasting everything, from the ground to my fingers. Gepetto was little by little learning about the world, and discovering that it’s a pretty cool place to be.