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How To Attract Owls And Rockefeller the Owl Story Retold


Repeat alert:

Last year, after reading about the tiny owl in the NYC Christmas tree, June wanted to know how to attract owls to her yard. It’s the perfect bird story for this time of year, so let’s tell it again.


Dear Bird Folks,

I loved hearing about the little owl that was discovered in the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Do those owls live around here and is it possible to attract them to my yard?

– June, Orleans, MA


Me, too, June,

I also loved reading about the owl (Northern Saw-whet Owl) in the Rockefeller Center tree, but for a different reason than everyone else. For years, accounts have been circulating about owls being found hiding in Christmas trees – trees that were decorated and standing in people’s living rooms. I’ve even written about such discoveries myself. But I was never really sure if what I had reported was totally accurate or if it was all an urban myth. Hearing about the NYC owl gave me confidence that my owl stories could be real and that something I’d written about might actually be true…finally.

For anyone who has somehow slept through this story, here’s what you missed. When the workers were erecting the annual Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, they discovered a tiny owl hiding in the inner branches. The tree, a 75-foot-tall Norway spruce, had just completed the 170-mile trip from Oneonta, NY, where it had been cut from the property of Daddy Al’s General Store. Just knowing there’s a place in the world called Daddy Al’s was enough to get my attention, but hearing it was also about an owl made it even better. This brings up several questions: How did the bird end up in the tree in first place? Was it visiting Times Square and needed a place to crash for a few hours? Did it sneak into the tree after it had already been loaded onto the truck? Or was it in the tree the whole time? Only the owl knows for sure, but any of those scenarios could actually be true.

While normally found in deep woods, saw-whet owls are notorious for popping up in odd places, such as city parks, playgrounds or in a tree near Daddy Al’s. Saw-whets are also big time migrants, so it’s quite possible that the owl hopped aboard the traveling tree while the truck driver stopped for a break or to get a veggie burger. Then there is the likelihood that the bird was in the tree the entire time, including when it was cut down. The workers claim they had inspected the tree thoroughly before moving it, but there’s a reason why saw-whet owls, although common and widespread, are seldom seen. They are masters of concealment. If they can remain hidden in a living room Christmas tree, they could easily hide in a 75-foot-tall Norway spruce.

So, what happened to the little owl after it was discovered? Don’t worry, it’s all good. The workers who found the stowaway owl know a lot about trees, but not a ton about birds. They thought they had found a “baby owl” and soon contacted the good people at Ravensbeard Wildlife Center. (Ravensbeard? This story is just full of cool names.) It turns out that the owl was not a baby at all, but totally full-grown. To be fair to the workers though, even an adult saw-whet, which weighs less than three ounces and is absolutely adorable, looks more like a baby owl than most real baby owls do.

At Ravensbeard, the owl, now called “Rocky” (named after Rockefeller Center, not Sylvester Stallone), was given a daily feeding of frozen mice and examined for any possible medical issues. And after a few days of R & R and frozen mice, the bird was released back into the wild, making this one of the few upbeat stories of 2020. It was indeed a wonderful experience for all those involved…well, all except the frozen mice. They weren’t thrilled.

Do saw-whet owls live around here? Yeah, they sure do and their population appears to be increasing. Just this past winter a customer told me that she had been hearing a saw-whet calling in her East Orleans neighborhood. Always happy to investigate an owl report, I stopped by her ‘hood on my way home. I walked around the area and listened, hoping to hear the bird’s distinctive call, but heard nothing but my teeth chattering (it was mid-February). Next, I tried calling in the bird. A lot of birders can do great bird calls. I’m not one of them. But even I can imitate a saw-whet owl. The male’s call is a simple series of repetitive whistle notes, sounding like “toot, toot, toot, toot.” With my lips half-frozen, I gave it my best shot, and amazingly, it worked. Instantly, a saw-whet owl landed on the utility pole above my head. The bird stared down at me until it figured out that the sound was coming from an idiot human, and took off into the night. A short glimpse was all I got, but it was worth it. I went home to warm up.

Like screech-owls, saw-whets will use specifically designed birdhouses, so putting up such a box would be a good way to attract them, June. Of the two species, screech-owls are far more common in our area and thus are likely to grab the box first, but that’s not such a bad thing. If you don’t want to invest in a nest box, you could try filling your bird feeder with frozen mice. Or you could try attracting the owl by planting a 75-foot Norway spruce, but I can’t give you advice on how to do that. For spruce tree help you’ll have to get in touch with Daddy Al. I hear he’s the best.