As It Happens

Tiny owl found unharmed in Rockefeller tree is a 'Christmas miracle,' says rehabilitator

The story of Rockefeller the owl is one of "hope," says the woman now tending to the tiny bird who hitched a ride to New York City in a 23-metre tall spruce tree.

'Rockefeller is doing really well,' Ellen Kalish says. 'We couldn't be more pleased with his progress'

Rockefeller, a northern saw-whet owl, is pictured after being found and rescued in a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center in New York City. (Ravensbeard Wildlife Center/Reuters)


The story of Rockefeller the owl is one of "hope," says the woman now tending to the tiny creature that hitched a ride to New York City inside a 23-metre tall spruce tree.

A worker discovered the bird while preparing to erect the tree outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City on Monday. When he refused to fly away, his wife contacted the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center in Saugerties, N.Y.

"We thought he was going to be damaged when we got him. And by sheer Christmas miracle, nothing was broken," Ravensbeard director Ellen Kalish told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"Rockefeller is doing really well. We couldn't be more pleased with his progress. He's eating, drinking. He's taken a little bath by himself. He's just enjoying all the food and, you know, is on deck for the release."

A man holds the tiny bird after it was rescued from inside the Rockefeller Christmas tree. (Ravensbeard Wildlife Center/Reuters)

Kalish has no idea exactly how Rockefeller ended up in the tree. She says he could have been hanging out in its branches and gotten concussed when it was felled. Or he could have crawled into the tree somewhere along the 270-kilometre journey from Oneonta, N.Y., to Manhattan.

"I'm sure it was quite a shock, but we don't know the whole story and we never will," she said. "But we have a feeling that he did not fly into the tree from New York City with all the construction and lights. It would not be a place an owl would seek to hide."

Ellen Kalish says Rockefeller was hungry and dehydrated, but otherwise unharmed. (Ravensbeard Wildlife Center/Reuters)

Paula Dick, who grew the tree in her yard, told As It Happens on Wednesday that it had been wrapped for a full week. 

Kalish says it's possible Rockefeller was in there the whole time, since he arrived at the centre dehydrated and hungry.

"So we're now feeding him up and we're going to release him with a full belly," she said. 

While he's very small, Kalish says Rockefeller is a full-grown northern saw-whet, the smallest owl species in the northeast. He's about 12 centimetres tall and weighs 2.5 ounces.

"He's just a little ball of feathers that it's remarkable that he made his way [here]," she said.

The little owl will be released over the weekend in the forest near Saugerties, N.Y. (Lindsay Possumato/Ravensbeard Wildlife Center/The Associated Press)

Kalish sees the story as a rare bright spot in an otherwise dreary year.

"It was such a positive, positive story," she said. "It could have gone the other way, and we could have had to put him down. For this to just be such a great story from start to finish has just been a gift, I think, to the world."

But the bird's former home-turned-prison isn't generating the same fawning reactions. 

The massive Norway spruce from Oneonta has been the source of mockery online, where people have declared its scraggly and lopsided branches as a symbol of 2020. 

The 2020 Rockefeller Center Christmas tree suspended by a crane as its is prepared for setting on a platform at Rockefeller Center. (Craig Ruttle/The Associated Press)

But Dick says it just needs a couple of days to let its branches fall into place.

"You know what? I'm glad everybody's having a good time making their TikToks and comments and all that. I'm OK with it, [but] in the end, it's going to be pretty," she said. "Just wait. When that tree is done, it's going to be beautiful." 

Saw-whet owls are nomadic, so Kalish says there's no reason to drive him back to Oneonta. She's planning to release him this weekend in a nearby stretch of pine forest, where he will spend his days hiding in spruce trees and his nights hunting rodents. 

"He may look like a cute little Furby, but underneath all that, he's an amazing predator."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Ellen Kalish produced by Sarah Jackson. Interview with Paula Dick produced by Chris Harbord. 

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