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In addition to the local news, WXPR Public Radio also likes to find stories that are outside the general news cycle... Listen below to stories about history, people, culture, art, and the environment in the Northwoods that go a little deeper than a traditional news story allows us to do. Here are all of the series we include in this podcast: Curious North, We Live Up Here, A Northwoods Moment in History, Field Notes, and Wildlife Matters.These features are also available as a podcast by searching "WXPR Local Features" wherever you get your podcasts.

Rocky The Owl In The Big Apple

Image by CTolman on Pixabay.com

Rocky the owl made headlines recently with a wild ride into the Big Apple. The Masked Biologist ponders the plight of this owl in this week’s wildlife matters.

If you were listening to the news over the course of the last few weeks, aside from the ongoing political noise, you may have heard a couple of wildlife news stories. I try to follow as many of those stories as I can. One that I personally thought got way too much hype was that of Rocky the saw whet owl.

This story made headlines around the nation. When the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was put up, scaffolded, and workers started to prep it for decorating, they found an owl in the tree. At first, it was billed as a helpless adorable baby owl, and it was rescued from the tree by some very concerned workers. Of course, I had to inform my family that it couldn’t possibly be a baby because baby owls hatch in February, not November or December. It was quite adorable, but I couldn’t really see any of the owl except for its eyes, facial disks, and beak. The owl was given the name Rockefeller (of course) which was quickly supplanted by the nickname Rocky.

Rocky wasn’t a baby owl (or owlet), or even a juvenile, but an adult female Northern saw whet owl. If you had to find a random owl, this is probably the owl you want to find. It’s eyes look somewhat cat-like, which makes it adorable. The facial disks emphasize the adorable eyes, even though they are there to improve its hearing by helping collect sound. And when you hold an owl like that, they tend to stare right at you, but its because they can’t quite see you. They have great distance vision, so their close vision gets blurry up close. Compared to roughly the size of a robin, this is one of the smallest owls we have here in the US – it can fit into a 3” hole to make a nest and weighs around three ounces. It is my understanding that the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center took great care of Rocky until they released her back into the wild, and they earned about $17,000 in donations in the meanwhile.

How did the owl get into the tree in the first place? The official statement said that they checked every single branch before shipping it, but it may have gotten into the tree in the course of shipment.
Okay, I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I am an expert after all. I have been identified by a couple of amazing birders as one of the worst birders they have ever known…but I am a wildlife biologist, too. I look for animals for a living. I drive my family nuts when we are cruising at highway speeds and I randomly spout “did you see that hawk grab that snake?” or “look at that kettle of nighthawks above us!” Even so, have you ever looked for a bird in a tree? Or have you ever had anyone say “what kind of bird is that in the tree?” You can stare at tree bark until you go cross-eyed, but if the bird doesn’t want to be seen, you won’t see it.

I am sure that the shipping company did due diligence in checking the tree, but let’s be clear. This is a big tree. This thing is 75 feet tall, 45 feet wide, and weighs 11 tons. As a side note, it was not cut from virgin timber somewhere in the forest. It was an ornamental tree, a non-native Norway spruce that was cut out of some guy’s yard in upstate New York. I think this owl was caught off guard when they cut the tree suspended from a crane and then lowered it onto the truck, and ended up a non-voluntary steerage passenger on the 170 mile trip to the big apple.

It was one of our smallest and most adorable owls, but also one of our most abundant. They are found at northern latitudes across the US, including here in the Northwoods, except when they head further south where they can hunt insects rodents, and small birds without dealing with deep snow. That’s presumably what Rocky did, once she got to gobble down an all-you-can-eat mousie buffet, the wildlife center set her free to resume her trip south, presumably in the air, not down the interstate. Far from extraordinary to me, the media treated it as a modern day Christmas miracle. But, I guess that’s okay, the way this year has gone, if people need even a minor miracle, who am I to judge?

The Masked Biologist is a weekly commentator on WXPR talking about natural resources and wildlife in the Northwoods. He is anonymous so that he can separate his professional life as a biologist from his personal feelings about the natural world.
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