Rocky, the Rockefeller Christmas tree owl, released back into the wild

December 1, 2020
kat simons


Rockefeller, the tiny, beloved owl that was rescued from the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree last week, has been set free. She was released into the wild in upstate New York after a week of rehabilitation.

A TINY OWL became a supersize symbol of resilience this week after surviving a road trip inside a huge Christmas tree destined for New York City. Today, she flew free.

The seven-inch-tall northern saw-whet, one of North America’s tiniest owl species, was found nestled inside the base of a 75-foot-tall spruce tree that had been chopped down in upstate New York and transported by truck to midtown Manhattan’s Rockefeller Plaza, to be erected as its annual iconic Christmas tree.

The hardy bird was released into a wooded area in Upstate New York today at dusk—when owls are most active—following several days of treatment at Ravensbeard Wildlife Center.

“I always get choked up when I release birds because it’s such a labor of love. It’s beautiful and it’s what we live for—all the rehabbers—seeing them go back to the wild,” says wildlife rehabilitator Ellen Kalish, who runs Ravensbeard from her home in Saugerties, New York.

When Kalish got a call about the owl on Wednesday, she “almost dropped the phone.” The caller said that her husband, one of the Christmas tree crew members, had just discovered the little owl while the team was preparing to raise the tree in Rockefeller Plaza; the owl rescuer scooped her up, worried that she’d been stuck inside for days and was possibly injured. When Kalish retrieved the owl, she was standing upright in a cardboard box, looking straight at her. “I thought, this is a miracle! How did this bird survive this trip?”

She named the owl Rockefeller, or “Rocky.”

“She was dehydrated and super hungry,” she says, estimating that she probably had not been able to eat or drink for at least a few days. She immediately gave her water and food—a few frozen mice—which she devoured quickly. A veterinarian examined her, and x-rays showed that she had no broken bones or internal damage. By Thursday, Rocky started to bathe herself—a sign she was feeling good. (An owl bath, Kalish says, leads to “water everywhere.”)

While most migratory birds are hardy, Kalish says that, in her 20 years of rehabilitating birds, she’s found that owls can be fragile.

“They’re predators. They’re used to being on the offensive. And when they’re in danger or sick, they just really don’t do well.” For Rocky to bounce back so quickly—and be so animated—after such an ordeal was heartening, she says.

America falls in love with Rocky the owl

Once Kalish knew Rocky was doing well, she decided to share her saga on her Facebook page. “It was such a special story, and everyone needs to smile these days. It was too good to keep to myself,” she says. The story went viral: overjoyed comments started flooding in, and she started fielding calls from media outlets all over the U.S. She responded to these with the help of her family while caring for Rocky and several other birds she’s rehabilitating at home, including a wood duck, four pigeons, and a Harris’s hawk.