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An Owl in the Christmas Tree Revisited

Author’s note:

The newspaper just reminded me that due to Christmas, they have an early deadline this week. Christmas? Why didn’t someone tell me Christmas was coming? Because of the lack of time, I’ve decided to revise a column that I wrote many years ago. (Yup, it’s a repeat.) Don’t worry. You won’t remember reading it before, since I don’t remember ever writing it. I promise I’ll have a brand new column next week, because I know there isn’t a holiday after Christmas, right?


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 can be found still living in Christmas trees. Could that be true? Wouldn’t they just fly away?

– Morgan, Brewster, MA


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 has to be true. Here are the two stories that I know about. You can check your mom’s story against either of these to see if we agree.

The first one comes from up north. On the night of the full moon closest to Christmas, this family would go into the forest and cut down 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 cutting the tree from the neighbor’s property and didn’t want to be caught, but either way it was always night.

In keeping with their tradition, the tree cutting and tree decorating both took place on the same night. After carrying the tree home, setting it up and adding all the trimmings, the family went to bed, assuming everything was normal. But this was no normal year. Unbeknownst to the family, hidden in the branches of their brand new Christmas tree, was a full-grown Saw-whet Owl, wondering what the heck was going on.

Saw-whets like to roost in the low branches of pine trees. They also are extremely tame birds, even tamer than our friendly pals the chickadees. Birders have reported finding a roosting Saw-whet Owl during the day, walking up and petting it on the head and even lifting it right off the branch without the bird protesting in any way. This relaxed behavior may well be some kind of important defense mechanism, but I like saying the bird is “tame.” It 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 birds’ bodies to slow down and save energy on very cold nights. Birds in this state are slow to wake up. If this particular owl was indeed in a torpor, when its roosting tree was cut down, I’m sure it awoke rather quickly once it found itself inside, felt the heat from the fireplace and heard 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 carol singing, gift opening and hearing It’s a Wonderful Life on TV — the owl sat tight and remained hidden. It most likely only ventured out when everyone else was asleep, to look for food or to watch Letterman. It makes me wonder what the bird could have been eating for those two weeks. Maybe it survived on hidden snacks of eggnog and candy canes, which is possible because that’s what my kids live on this time of year.

The owl remained unnoticed until it was time to take the tree down. After most of the decorations were off, there was one ornament remaining deep inside the tree, which had a pair of eyes that stared back. The startled family easily captured the starving owl 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.

Another similar story took place in, of all locations, Florida. (I didn’t even know that they had Christmas trees in Florida.) This time the surprise guest was an Eastern Screech-Owl. (Instead of being in a cold weather torpor, this owl was most likely hiding in the tree to avoid heatstroke.) When the family discovered the owl they rushed it to the nearest wildlife clinic. Upon examination, the people at the clinic found that the bird had an unusual smell. The aroma? It turned out to be, of all things, the smell of marijuana. (Really.) Where did the smell come from? I’m guessing that either the people who found the bird liked to party or the owl had just come from a Grateful Dead concert.

FYI: The people in both stories were lucky. If there was a Great Horned Owl living in their Christmas trees, things could have gotten ugly. In addition to consuming all the eggnog and candy canes, this giant owl would have eaten the family dog, the family cat and any visiting relatives who mistakenly wandered into the living room late at night.

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. It looks kind of gross, but Santa totally understands. Besides, it’s better than that warm glass of milk he has to drink.