By Bill Chaisson
When Ellen Kalish took the call at the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center in Saugerties, New York, she was told that someone had found a baby owl in a Christmas tree. This turned out to be inaccurate and a bit of an understatement. The Norway spruce had been cut down outside Oneonta, New York, wrapped up to prevent damage to the limbs, and then, after some delay, was driven three and a half hours to Manhattan. When they got to Rockefeller Center and unwrapped the 75-foot tree, the crew found the owl, which had been stuck in the tree without food or water for three days.
One of the wives of the tree crew called Ravensbeard after her husband told her about the “baby owl.” The owl was driven an hour and 45 minutes from New York to Saugerties, where Kalish opened the box to find an emaciated, but uninjured fully grown northern saw-whet owl staring back at her. All of this transpired in mid-November; the tree lighting ceremony was on Dec. 2.
This species is the second smallest owl in North America, after the elf owl of the Southwest U.S. and Mexico. Elf owls are less than 6 inches long, the size of a sparrow. The northern saw-whet (Aegolius acadicus) is 7 or 8 inches long and ranges across the middle of the lower tier of Canadian provinces between the Rockies and the maritime provinces. Its range extends south in the western mountains into Mexico where its distribution meets that of the unspotted saw-whet owl (A. ridgwayi), which ranges south Mexico to Panama. In the northeast the saw-whet lives throughout New England and most of upstate New York down into central Pennsylvania. Saw-whet owls withdraw from the northern part of their Canadian distribution in the winter, but they are permanent residents near Oneonta, where the owl they decided to call “Rockefeller” was so unceremoniously captured and displaced.
The only time I have seen this species was on Third Place in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, where I lived for a couple of years in the mid-1980s while I was in graduate school at NYU. I was on my way home from the subway one autumn evening and I noticed a plump bird sitting on the lowest limb of a street tree, little more than seven feet from the ground. I got within three feet of it and was surprised that it was any sort of owl at all, never mind a saw-whet. It sat there staring at me, entirely unperturbed while I stared back at it.
I had never seen nor heard this owl in the neighborhood, so I assumed that it was migrating through. While most owl species are permanent residents throughout their distributions, many retreat from the northern parts in the winter and some, like the snowy, great gray, and hawk owls, irrupt southward at odd intervals.
In an online article at livescience.com, Laura Geggel described the rehabilitation and release of Rockefeller. Kalish fattened the beleaguered bird with mice, making sure that the bird did not associate her with the mice and thereby lose interest in hunting. When “Rockie” regained her full weight of about 80 grams, Kalish released her into the wild near Saugerties. There was no reason to return her to Oneonta because saw-whets are nomadic; they only establish territories during the breeding season and otherwise roam freely. The Ravensbeard staff reasoned that transporting Rockefeller all the way back upstate would only stress her out.
The cartoon depiction of owls usually resembles a great horned owl: large with the ear tufts and a lot of hooting. The northern saw-whet is basically the opposite of that. They lack ear tufts altogether but do have the broad eye discs that are an adaptation to funneling sound to their sensitive ears.
Like most predators, owl eyes are aimed forward so that they have binocular vision that provides them with depth perception. Their ears are not arranged symmetrically, which gives them a three-dimensional sense of hearing because the sound arrives slightly later to one ear.
Many owl species have white markings over the eyes, but they are separated by a darker vertical bar. Saw-whet owls are distinguished by the prominent, uninterrupted white V that meets between their yellow eyes. Adults have chests and bellies that are white and with broad vertical rufous stripes. The back is brown with prominent white spots on the wings. In flight the undersides of the wings are white with a dark trailing edge. Juveniles have the white V on the face, but their undersides are evenly cream-yellow or light brown, and there are only a few spots on the wings.
They live in coniferous forests but will range into mixed woodlands. They eat mostly small mammals and nest and roost in cavities that are either natural or excavated by other animals.
As ever, David Sibley’s rendering of the voice is evocative: “low, whistled toots (about two per second) poo, poo, poo … or toit, toit, toit … also wheezy, rising catlike screech schweeee; soft nasal barks kew or pew similar to elf owl; whining soft whistle eeooi.” It is the low, whistled toots that are supposed to sound like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone.
The tooting is a mating call. The female is fed by the male while she broods the eggs. After they hatch, she turns over the owl-care to the male and goes off in search of another male to mate with, a pattern called sequential polyandry. Rockefeller will be the new female in the Saugerties area, although nomadic owls with multiple partners probably already have a strongly mixed gene pool.
Bill Chaisson has been a birdwatcher from the age of 10. He is a former managing editor of the Eagle Times and now works and lives in the town of Wilmot.