Nearly a month ago, while setting up the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, workers found an unexpected present. Tucked into the base of the massive spruce tree, which had been cut down near Oneonta and transported to Manhattan, was a Northern Saw-whet Owl. The bird, appropriately named Rockefeller “Rocky” the Owl, has since become a national celebrity. The charming female saw-whet with its big, cartoonish eyes captured the hearts of millions. Some have even written beats inspired by their feathered muse.
In late November, Rocky was transported back upstate following several days of treatment at Ravensbeard Wildlife Center. However, many questions remain: How did she get there? Where will she go next?
To answer these questions, we chatted with Sean Beckett, owl researcher and director of natural history programs at the North Branch Nature Center.
Q: This situation feels like something out of a Pixar story. How does a bird like this end up in the Rockefeller Christmas Tree?
SB: We tend to think of Northern Saw-whet Owls as predators, but they are also prey to larger birds like Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, and diurnal raptors like Northern Goshawks, so they spend the bulk of their day in cavities or dense vegetation for safety. Northern Saw-whet Owls are looking to spend the day huddled up next to the trunk of the densest conifer tree they can find, and that is exactly what Rockefeller Center would be looking for in a Christmas tree.
Rocky might have been hiding all the way from Oneonta and, in response to the tree being transported, stayed in place as if there were predators around. Alternatively, she might have ended up in the tree during transportation or after it was already put up. Saw-whets are migratory and it is possible that this bird was heading south over New York City, saw this large tree in a desert of concrete, and went there to hide for the day.
Q: This is one species that we have learned a lot about through banding. Can you explain what banding is and what it has told us about this species?
SB: Banding is one of the oldest ways to figure out where birds are moving. It is simply putting an aluminum leg band on a bird that you have caught. These bands are issued by the USGS Bird Banding Lab and have a unique identifier. If I put a band on a bird in Vermont and someone catches it in Florida, they can enter the number into a database and figure out where that bird was banded. I’m part of a group of hundreds of organizations, known as Project Owlnet, which has used this simple technique to understand Northern Saw-whet Owl migration along the eastern seaboard for the last 20 to 30 years. Our findings have been pretty surprising. This species is actually quite common across the country and highly migratory for an owl. For example, we banded a saw-whet on October 14th at the North Branch Nature Center in Vermont and one month later, that same bird was discovered down in Virginia. So in one month, that bird flew 500 miles south.
Q: Now that Rocky has been released, where might she go based on what we know about Northern Saw-whet migration? Where do Northern Saw-whets typically migrate?
SB: One thing that our research has turned up is that saw-whets move through in a big "wave" during the fall migration. This wave peaks in the NYC area in roughly mid-November, so Rocky could have been flying over New York on her way south. She might winter in the New York area, especially if it’s a mild winter, or end up as far south as northern Florida. If I had to guess, I’d say Rocky will likely spend the winter in the mid-Appalachian states.
Q: How much of a threat is deforestation to Northern Saw-whet Owls? Do saw-whets typically use the trees we use as Christmas trees and, if so, is that market a threat?
SB: It is safe to say that the Christmas tree industry is not a huge threat to the species. If you cut down a six-foot tall tree, you’re likely not going to end up with a saw-whet in your living room. More broadly, the data suggests that populations are stable right now, which is great news. But we don’t need data to tell us that there is a strong connection between how we manage our forests and Northern Saw-whet Owls. They’re a bioindicator, so if they start to decline that may be a sign that boreal forests are under stress.
One thing that’s great about this species is that, because they can get by on small patches of forest, landowners that only have one or two acres can make minor management changes on their property that benefit saw-whets. Leaving dead snags standing rather than cutting them down can produce cavities that they can roost or nest in, and making sure you have dense vegetation will give them places to hide during the day.
Q: Any tips for people that want to see a Northern Saw-whet Owl in the wild?
SB: These birds like to hide in snags or dense vegetation, so check those spots. Get in touch with your local nature center or Audubon chapter to see if they do any owl prowls. With owls in particular, they can be rare, charismatic visitors from the north with a lot of potential for environmental education. But there’s also potential for conflict. If you are viewing close enough to change the behavior of the bird, you are too close. If the bird is watching you, moving, or flying away then you’re definitely too close. There’s always temptation to get a good photograph, but use the bird’s behavior to inform your own. Also, with owls in particular, the etiquette is to not post the exact location of a bird.
In a nutshell, try not to disturb the bird.
To learn about how Audubon uses the latest in migration science to protect migratory birds and the places they need throughout their full annual cycle, please read about the Migratory Bird Initiative.