Catching the Bus

A yellow bus rolled to a stop in front of the Haldane School’s main building. Lacrosse Coach Gary Van Asselt happened to be walking by, and his eyes widened. “Holy #%@!” he said, and gently pulled a Pileated woodpecker out of the bus’s grill.

Gary is also a birder who lives near me, and he has my phone number on speed dial. I went to collect the woodpecker, who was dopey from head trauma and had a very sore wing, but no broken bones. It was a female, as the males have a red moustache stripe. She spent a few days in my wildlife rehabilitation clinic, resting up while I filled her with pain meds and mealworms.

Filling a Pileated woodpecker with mealworms is like filling a Hummer with gasoline. You stand there waiting, thinking it is impossible for it to hold as much as it does; finally it is full, then before you know it, you have to go through the process all over again. The difference, of course, is that Pileated woodpeckers are supposed to be here, plus they’re one of the cutest things on earth. Nothing fazes them; they look at you quizzically, as if they’re wondering whether or not you have any function other than to fill them up with mealworms.

Question: how many mealworms can a Pileated woodpecker eat per day? Answer: a frickin’ boatload.

Almost a week later I opened the clinic door to the sound of thunderous pounding, and cleverly deduced that the woodpecker was feeling better. The other clinic occupants looked slightly traumatized, so I moved the woodpecker to a small outdoor flight, then watched in dismay as she went about demolishing it. Every wildlife rehabilitator who has ever hosted a Pileated woodpecker can recall the exact moment when they discovered that these incredibly appealing creatures can reduce a two-by-four to kindling in jig time. I called my carpenter friend Dan Reinholdt, who gallantly came to my rescue and re-built the woodpeckered flight.

He would do this every two to three days for almost three weeks.

“What’s the matter with her?” I whined to Rachel, my woodpecker expert friend. “Why can’t she chill out, if she just got hit in the head by a bus?”

“Because woodpeckers peck wood,” said Rachel. “That’s why they’re called woodpeckers.”


Eventually she could extend her sore wing and fly perfectly, and Dan and I wearily drove her to a nice wooded area along the bus route, knowing she’d find her way back home . We peered into her crate and she peered back at us, a queen acknowledging  her hardworking subjects. I opened the crate and she flew gracefully toward the forest, where the trees no doubt cowered at the very sight of her.



About suziegilbert

I live in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley and have been rehabbing birds for over twenty years. I’ve written a memoir about the slippery slope all rehabbers eventually slide down, called “Flyaway: How a Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings,” published in 2009 by HarperCollins; and a children's book called "Hawk Hill," published in 1996 by Chronicle Books. I also write all kinds of freelance content. Please see my website,
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8 Responses to Catching the Bus

  1. Thomas says:

    I love that frontal picture! One of the best photos of a pileated I’ve seen. Never rehabbed one (I just handled small mammals). What a funny story. I use to golf at a resort in Minnesota that has many of these large birds. It was treat to simply sit and enjoy their antics. Thanks for the fun story and for giving us back one of these awesome birds to enjoy.

  2. Jodi says:

    Never had the pleasure thank god, cant afford the carpenter!!

  3. Jo says:

    my favorite birds, Pileateds!! how exciting for you to have your flight jack-hammered down by such a cool girl! Jo
    : >

  4. Celine says:

    Love it! That picture is the cutest thing Ive ever seen Thanks

  5. GREAT pic!!!! hahaha! glad she was alright!

  6. Helen says:

    Wonderful photos! Great storey!
    I haven’t rehabbed birds in years but remember how time consuming it was. 🙂

  7. suziegilbert says:

    Thanks, everyone! You know, that photo won an award from the National Wildlife Federation magazine’s photo contest. Doncha love it?

  8. Lisa says:

    Love this story Suzie, Great job the blog is awesome! 🙂

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