How Bird-Friendly Are Your Holiday Decorations?

Artificial plants, string, and netting can harm birds. Here's how to make your decor safe for them—and, with a bit of effort, even welcoming.

A Northern Saw-Whet Owl recently became a celebrity sensation after hitching a ride to the Big Apple. The bird was found nestled among the branches of the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree on Wednesday, November 18th, and quickly took the internet by storm—even making the evening news in the New York City area. 

Nicknamed Rocky, the owl was transported to the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center in Saugerties, New York, where director Ellen Kalish told the Associated Press she received fluids and “a buffet of all-you-can-eat mice.” The owl was hungry and dehydrated after presumably being trapped in the tree since it was cut down in Oneonta, New York, but otherwise had a clean bill of health. She was released back into the wild at sunset on Tuesday, November 24th.

It’s rather uncommon—although not unheard of—to find a live owl nestled in your Christmas tree. But as the holiday season arrives, Rocky serves as an important reminder to decorate and celebrate in a bird-friendly way. Just weeks ago, the nonprofit Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky treated a Saw-Whet Owl who had gotten caught in the loosely-woven fabric of a Halloween decoration. While rehabilitators were able to untangle this patient, it was too late to save his life.

“Due to the toxins built up in the wing from lack of circulation, this poor owl passed away,” the organization wrote on Instagram. “Moral of the story, please decorate for the holidays responsibly.”

Along with checking Christmas trees for any hitchiking owls, there are several easy ways to celebrate the season in a bird-friendly way. Tiffany Dicks, a rehabilitator with the nonprofit, recommends checking outdoor decorations consistently and avoiding materials like fake snow, netting, or wires that could potentially entangle birds this holiday season. “Anything that’s like string is going to be hazardous to wildlife,” she says. “I haven’t heard of any raptors getting caught in Christmas lights, but any time you’re decorating with something like that, just be cautious and keep an eye on it. If you care about wildlife, just check your decorations now and then.”

Other common outdoor decorations include synthetic garlands, wreaths, and ornaments meant to mimic the beauty of the natural world. Fake mistletoe and plastic winterberry sprigs are designed to look picture-perfect to humans. But Audubon Director of Bird-Friendly Communities John Rowden warns that this lifelike decor should be used with caution: Birds may like the look of it, too. 

“If it’s something that’s meant to be convincing to us, avoid putting it out where it might confuse a bird as well,” Rowden says. “There are a lot of plants that produce small red berries because they will be attractive to birds and will get their seeds dispersed, and so if [fake berries] are small and red, I could see a bird being attracted to that and potentially ingesting it.”

Rowden notes that it’s unlikely a fake holly wreath on your front door or spruce garland on your porch will confuse wild birds. Instead, he recommends keeping fake fruits, nuts, and seeds away from outdoor trees and open areas where birds are more likely to forage. “If there are feeders around and birds are primed to be thinking about foraging in the area, avoid putting out stuff that mimics food,” he adds. 

Decorating with real plants is a great way to add beautiful elements to your home or yard that wild birds will love. Mistletoe, for example, is a favorite treat of migratory songbirds like bluebirds and Evening Grosbeaks. Other birds, including large raptors, have been known to nest in its foliage in the American West.

If you plan on decorating with berry-producing native plants, just make sure your home and yard are free from other hazards that may endanger visiting birds. Dicks notes that over 90 percent of the raptor patients treated by her organization have ailments caused by the human world.

“We get a lot of window strikes in,” she says. “Birds don’t even see the glass that’s there and just fly straight towards it.” Rowden advises making exterior windows visible with patterned decals, screens, or other barriers spaced no more than 2 inches vertically and 4 inches horizontally. Some birds, especially smaller songbirds, will see the open space as a passageway.

With bird-friendly foliage in place and a home and yard free of hazards, he adds that there’s only one more step to take: commit to native plants all year long, helping birds like Rocky enjoy a stable home. 

“Plant a native pine tree in your yard, if you have access to a yard, so you can enjoy that year-round and it provides habitat,” Rowden says. “Maybe an owl will take up residence there. Who knows?”