Everyone needs a good holiday story, especially this year. Bird fans all over the country were enchanted last week by the adventures of Rockefeller the owl, who went from living a normal owl life in upstate New York to being an overnight internet sensation.
The tiny northern saw-whet owl was found by workers preparing to put up the giant Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tucked up against the trunk. She had most likely been roosting in the tree when it was cut down and made the journey to Manhattan on the truck. The alert workers (very alert; these owls are at most the size of a robin) arranged to have him brought to the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center in Saugerties, N.Y. She was dehydrated but recovered well with some TLC, some fluids and some delicious mice. She also got a very nice pink sweater out of the experience. Rockefeller was due to be released back into the wild this week, where she could enjoy her new life as an Instagram influencer. But in the meantime, let’s talk more about these very engaging little owls.
Northern saw-whet owls are generally the smallest owls residing in Wisconsin (the eastern screech-owls living in the southern half of the state are a similar size, but they’re heavier and stockier). These tiny predators aren’t often seen, as they’re fully nocturnal and roost in thick evergreen foliage up against the tree trunk. Which is exactly where Rockefeller was found once she made it to NYC and explains why the folks who cut down the tree didn’t see her at the time. Northern saw-whet owls have oversized heads and large yellow eyes, with a white “V” between the eyes and no ear tufts. Juveniles are a solid brown color and adults are lighter with wing bars. The only other owl they can be confused with is the boreal owl, which only occasionally wanders into our area from Canada and the North Shore.
Saw-whet owls are very curious and fearless, and they may fly up and check you out if you’re out in the woods at night. Otherwise the best way to see them is in the daytime when they’re being mobbed by flocks of small songbirds in exactly the same manner that crows gang up on large owls. Listen for the scolding of chickadees in winter and vireos or orioles in summer, and you may find a highly irritated, sleep-deprived saw-whet owl tucked into a fir tree at the source of all the racket (I advise doing this carefully, as sometimes the source of all the songbird scolding is a bear!). You can also hear their whistled “too-too-too” call at night along with several quavering calls that sound like a saw being sharpened — hence their mouthful of a name.
Northern saw-whet owls breed across southern Canada, the northern U.S. and the intermountain West all the way into Mexico. Their seasonal migration is poorly understood due to their reclusive behavior. What we do know is that some migrate, some stay put, and every four years or so they irrupt to the south in the winter in the same manner as snowy owls. They eat a surprising variety of prey, including small rodents, bats and birds including other small owls.
Saw-whet owls nest in tree cavities or nesting boxes in wooded areas, and the males are solely in charge of hunting for the family. Moms incubate, feed nestlings and do all the housekeeping until the chicks are 2-3 weeks old. Sadly, when she stops roosting at the nest, the dads are in charge of cleaning and things deteriorate quickly: The clean nest fills up with feces and decaying rodent parts until the family leaves. Males occasionally have more than one mate when prey is plentiful, which seems to me to be taking on a lot if they can’t even pick the place up once in a while.
So when you’re out at the tree farm this Christmas, be sure to check for a small stowaway in the tree. You never know who may want to be the next TikTok star.
Morris, a bird watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the Ashland County town of Gingles, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.