The tale of the Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree owl was spun as a heartwarming story more fit for Disney than NBC, but the little bird’s terrifying trip was a dangerous error that should never have happened, experts said.
The adorable owl – nicknamed Rockefeller – was lucky to survive after having its home cut down and then getting wrapped up in plastic for a bumpy 320km truck journey to Manhattan.
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The brown and white speckled saw-whet owl – which was found on Saturday clinging to a branch as the tree was unwrapped – was not removed from the tree before it was cut down even though Rockefeller Centre officials claimed they “meticulously” inspected every branch.
It was forced to survive three days without food and water as it lay sealed up in a cocoon of plastic wrap and wire.
“When it comes to wildlife there is always a bigger picture; it’s not about an owl in a sweater, there’s a bigger educational picture,” said Missy Runyan, who runs the Friends of the Feathered and Furry Wildlife Centre in Hunter.
“Worst case scenario … such a tiny little body would have been crushed by a limb above.”
The bird, nicknamed Rockefeller for its unwanted, temporary new home, endured blaring car horns and other foreign racket reverberating through the branches during the drive, a known stressor for owls.
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But in a world where humans are constantly encroaching on wildlife habitats, situations like this “happen more often than not, sadly enough,” Ms Runyan said.
When it comes to chopping down trees, arborists and landscaping companies are “always careless” in checking for nests and the tree’s furry inhabitants, the birder said.
Many times, entire bird families find themselves face-to-face with a woodchipper when their home is cut down and they weren’t securely removed beforehand, the expert said, adding she is often called in at the last moment to rescue such creatures.
“These are things you should do whether it’s a 50-foot tree (15m) or a 20-foot tree (6m), you should make sure there’s no protected birds’ nests in it or any live birds,” Ms Runyan explained.
She said there’s about a “50/50” chance the owl could have died when the tree was cut down.
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“The worst-case scenario would have been that bouncing limbs ruptured the eyes or such a tiny little body would have been crushed by a limb above but if something’s pushing on him he’s going to wiggle out and get himself into a position so that something isn’t,” Ms Runyan explained.
“So he may have started in one place and actually saved himself for the ride.”
Aside from the saw-whet, Ms Runyan said it was likely the 75 to 80-year-old tree had a slew of empty songbird and robin nests that will make the birds homeless when they return in the spring looking for them.
“Song birds return to their nests every year so those are the things everyone should be up in arms about because what you should do is check for any of those nests and if there are none that’s a wonderful thing but you’re supposed to check for those nests and move them to another tree,” Ms Runyan said.
“Especially now, the more habitats we take away, the more that we have them using strings and garbage to make nests if we keep cutting everything down.”
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It’s not clear if any nests were removed beforehand from the Rockefeller tree but Ms Runyan said failing to properly remove and relocate nests is commonplace in the industry.
Representatives for Rockefeller Centre said: “The tree is meticulously inspected branch by branch before it is wrapped for its journey to the city.”
A spokesperson said the bird may have got into the sealed tree “on the road, or even upon arrival at Rockefeller Centre”.
“Oneonta may very well have been where he was going to spend the winter,” Ms Runyan said.
The bird is currently in the care of Ellen Kalish at Ravensbeard Wildlife Centre in Saugerties, who didn’t return a request for comment. Staff plan to set him free there instead of returning him to where he was found.
It isn’t a move Ms Runyan would have made.
“It doesn’t mean she (Ellen Kalish) is wrong but you don’t know if you’re right,” the wildlifer said.
“That’s why I err on that side of caution. There’s just too many unanswered questions for him.”
This article originally appeared on the New York Post and was reproduced with permission