The delivery of this year’s traditional Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree earlier this month came with an unusual surprise, when a tiny owl was found to have stowed away for the ride.
“We’ve been in existence for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Helen Kalish, director and founder of the wildlife center, told NBC.
“The wife of the person that found the owl was calling around to try and get help for this little guy. He saw these little eyes looking at him and he reached in and grabbed it. He didn’t fly away so he wasn’t sure if it was injured.”
The tree was taken from Oneonta, which is upstate New York, 80 miles southwest of Albany and 170 miles north of New York City. Kalish guesses that the owl was caught and unable to fly away when the branches were tied for transportation.
“With all the commotion, I highly doubt that it flew in,” she said. “What I suspect was that it was in the tree when it got cut down and it probably got trapped when they wrapped the tree in some of the branches.”
The little stowaway managed to make the three-day journey to the city and was only found when the branches were released.
Kalish added: “They’re very resilient. The fact that he wasn’t crunched was a miracle. The fact that he made the trip alive … waking up in New York City with hundreds of people around? They’re very quiet and shy little creatures and extremely nocturnal and very rarely seen.”
Upon discovery, initial thoughts were that the tiny owl was a baby, but babies are born in the spring, and so this didn’t make sense.
In fact, despite his diminutive size, Rockefeller is actually full grown. Saw-whet owls are the smallest owls in the northeastern United States, Kalish said, typically growing to no more than 8.3 inches (17 to 21 centimeters) tall.
After the feathered stowaway was dropped off with Kalish and taken to the wildlife center, her team began giving him fluids and "all the mice he will eat." Rockefeller had not had anything to eat or drink during his three-day road trip.
Rockefeller was also taken to the vet for a checkup and some X-rays, but Kalish said he appears to be in great condition considering his adventurous week.
"So far, he's pensive and cautious. Very alert, bright-eyed," she said. "And the cuteness factor is just off the charts."
Once Rockefeller has a clean bill of health, Kalish and the Ravensbeard team will release him back into the wild, in line with the center’s outlook.
There are about 2 million saw-whet owls across the United States, she said, so Rockefeller will be okay even if he doesn't make it all the way back to Oneonta. "They find a new mate each year and go on with their lives," she said.
The year 2020 has been full of bad news, and so this tiny owl's rescue "was a story that needed to be shared," she added.