Rocky’s story should inspire us to be better stewards of owls

In a year full of news stories with not-so-happy endings the fact that Rocky, the northern saw-whet owl who was found in the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree this fall, was safely released back into the wild by the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center after her unexpected journey was a holiday miracle we all needed.

The odds were certainly against her. Weighing in at about three ounces and just eight inches, she could have easily been crushed along the way. She had unwillingly traveled some 170 miles from Oneonta, N.Y. inside the 75-foot Norway spruce to the big city.

Social media immediately fell in love with Rocky, as some authors, including Jessica DelVirginia. In fact, she loved Rocky’s story so much that she decided to write a children’s book about the celebrity owl called Rocky’s Road to the Big City.

I think Rocky’s story is an opportunity for people of all ages to learn about owls in general and how to protect them in their own communities. Friends of Animals has been going to the wall for barred owls in Washington and Oregon ever since U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to issue permits in 2013 to slaughter them in the name of conservation of Northern spotted owls. FoA has brought its arguments to the attention of U.S. courts and is still hoping the outcome of the litigation will spare the lives of more barred owls.

As the lawsuit makes its way through the courts, I signed up for Connecticut Audubon’s “An Inside Look: All About Owls” webinar last week. It did not disappoint, covering everything from just how far owls can rotate their necks; why they are such quiet fliers and how they are able to hunt at night.

Here are some more interesting facts. Most owl species are nocturnal and are found in virtually all habitat types. They are generally monogamous and usually both parents provide care. Owls have forward facing eyes that cannot rotate in the sockets so they bob their heads around to have more view—they can rotate their necks 270 degrees.

Their feather design allows for silent flying. The front fringe breaks up the turbulent air that causes flapping sounds.

Saw-whet owls like Rocky happen to be one of the smallest owl species in the U. S; that is why she was mistaken for a young bird at first.

Avoiding notice is a task at which this owl often succeeds; they are overlooked in many places which is why it is understandable that Rocky was not seen when workers were transporting the tree.

Late at night in the breeding season, males give a rhythmic tooting song that may go on for hours with scarcely a break. The saw-whet was named for this song, which reminded settlers of the sound of a whetstone sharpening a saw.

How you can help owls

Whether it is a saw-whet, barred, barn or screech owl, there is one thing we can all do immediately to protect owls that might surprise you. Stop throwing food — even the biodegradable kind like an apple or banana — out of your car windows.

I am guilty of throwing leftover apples and other fruit out the window. But what I learned is that they take several weeks to fully disintegrate into the soil, and during that time they provide a feast for rodents. Drawn to the rodent buffet owls who are hunting for food land on the side of the road Unfortunately, because of the configuration of their eyes they are unable to see oncoming traffic.

Unfortunately, Connecticut has seen quite an uptick in barred owls injured from car collisions this year. During the webinar, a naturalist from the Sharon Audubon Center, one of only two Audubon Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinics in the country, explained that this year there is a very healthy prey base of chipmunks and other rodents, which is good news in terms of owls raising larger clutches, but bad news in terms of how many are foraging for food at the side of the road, tempting owls.

So less sugary, biodegradable foods on the roadside means fewer owls spending time there hunting.

In your backyard

People can also help owls by making their yards inviting and safe. Here are some tips:

Most owls feel more secure and hunt more comfortably in darkness. Turning off porch lights, landscape lighting and other outdoor illumination will help owls roam more freely. Similarly, decorative string and net lights should be minimized not only to reduce light levels, but to minimize the risk of hunting owls getting tangled in the wires.

Unless they are at risk of falling on your home, don’t cut down trees. Snags, the name for dead trees that are left upright to decompose naturally, provide vital habitat for more than 1,000 species of wildlife nationwide, including owls. They provide a place to live, a food source and a hiding place. Plus, they are good for the environment. Moss, lichens and fungi all grow on snags and aid in the return of vital nutrients to the soil through the nitrogen cycle.

Pesticides and rodenticides are a grave threat to owls. They accumulate lethal levels of chemicals in their blood as they consume contaminated prey – a process called biomagnification – leading to illness and death.

Remove all types of netting from your yard at night, including soccer or hockey nets and the netting from basketball hoops. Flying owls can get tangled in these nets, causing distress, injuries and even death. Seasonal decorations, such as outdoor decorative cobwebs, are another threat that should be removed to protect owls.

In the field

If reading about Rocky made you smitten with northern saw-whets, I discovered these tips for finding them in the field from birder Sharon Stiteler on the Audubon website.

Comb the conifers. Stiteler checks every cedar tree she comes across, as well as pines and spruces and groups of conifers. Check the short and fats ones with extra care, she says. Most of the owls she finds are at eye level with her, and she’s only five feet tall.

Check for chalky droppings. Owl droppings have a thick, chalky quality that makes it distinctive from other droppings. Since many owl species tend to sit in the same tree all day, they often leave several thick white droplets on the ground and a trail on the branches.

Peep into small cavities with binoculars or camera lens. If the hole faces the sun, look for basking owls.

Use other birds as informants. Stiteler says she owes about half of her saw-whet sightings to chickadees and nuthatches. Though saw-whets eat mostly small mammals, birds from kinglets to cardinals are fair game. That’s why flocks of chickadees and nuthatches sound the alarm when they come across a saw-whet in a foraging tree.

“Once you lock eyes with a Northern saw-whet owl, you’ll never be the same again,” Stiteler writes.

Thanks to Rocky, I think the whole country can attest to that.

Nicole Rivard is editor of Friends of Animal’s quarterly magazine Action Line. She brings 18 years of journalism experience to the front lines, protesting and documenting atrocities against animals.