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A Christmas Tree Surprise

Dear Bird Folks,

Whenever my family picks out a Christmas tree, my mother always says “check for a hiding owl before you bring it in the house.” She claims that sometimes owls are found still living in Christmas trees. Could that be true? Wouldn’t they just fly away?

Morgan, Brewster


Yes Morgan,

You would think that the owls would simply fly off when a tree cutter came close. But there must be some truth to the story because I’ve heard several accounts of Christmas tree owls. One report was even on television, so it must be true. Here are the two stories that I know about. You can check your mom’s story with either of these to see if we agree.

The first one is about a family from up north (I won’t say Canada because the Canadians are still mad at me for my last column). On the night of the full moon, closest to Christmas, this family would go into the forest and cut their own Christmas tree. I’m not sure if they always went at night because the moonlight made things more romantic or because they were going onto the neighbor’s property and didn’t want to be caught, but it was always night.

this one year was extra cold, and the deep snow cover made things seem even colder. As with their tradition, the tree cutting and decorating both took place on the same night. Finishing the tree trimming, the family went to bed assuming everything was normal. But this was no normal year, for living in their brand new Christmas tree was a full-grown saw-whet owl.

Saw-whets like to roost in the low branches of pine trees. They also are extremely tame birds, even more tame than our friendly chickadee. If you are lucky enough to find a roosting owl, you could very likely walk up and pet it on the head or even lift it right off the branch without the bird protesting in any way. This behavior may well be some kind of defense mechanism, but saying the bird is tame sounds better.

The owl in our story was not only tame, but it may have been in a “torpor.” A torpor is a kind of deep sleep that allows some birds’ bodies to slow down and save energy on very cold nights. This bird’s torpor would be suddenly interrupted by the heat from the fireplace and the sounds of the family fighting over who got to put the star on the top of the tree.

An even more amazing twist to this story is that the family never knew the owl was in the tree. For two weeks, through all of the singing, gift opening, and meals, the owl sat tight, perhaps only venturing out late at night to look for food or to watch Letterman. It can only be speculated as to what food the owl lived on. Perhaps it lived totally on eggnog and candy canes, which is possible because that’s what my kids live on that time of year.

The owl remained unnoticed until it was time to take the tree down. After all of the ornaments were off, from deep in the tree, a pair of eyes stared back. The startled family easily caught the starving own and took it to a vet. The vet quickly whipped up a fresh mouse casserole and the little owl was on its way back to good health.

The other story of an owl hiding in a Christmas tree isn’t nearly as sweet. This other bird was the not so timid Great Horned Owl. In a single night it ate all of the family’s candy canes, two family pets, a visiting cousin and several small appliances. The owl was discovered the next morning gagging on a fruitcake and immediately asked to leave.

So you see, Morgan, your mom does have a reason to look for owls in your Christmas tree. It can happen. We always check in our tree for an owl, too. And just to be on the safe side, next to the plate of cookies for Santa, I leave a plate with a mouse on it. Which would help explain why the cookies are always gone by the next morning.