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A Holiday Gift

Paul Cypher, Interpreter, C.I.G.

Gift giving is basically the same, isn’t it?  It doesn’t matter if it is a holiday gift, a birthday gift, graduation gift or whatever. The mystery item is wrapped and given to an individual who often knows it’s coming but does not know what it is. Upon opening, they hopefully get excited and talk about it for years to come.

But sometimes, gifts are not always planned.

A few weeks ago, the crew setting up the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center In New York City found a Saw-whet Owl.  Apparently, the pint-sized bird was bound up in the tree as it was being prepared for transportation. This species is notoriously tame, and despite the disturbance, it did not fly from the tree when it had the chance.  The long drive from Oneonta, New York to the Big Apple left it dehydrated and hungry, but it was successfully nursed back to health and later released. They even named him Rockefeller!

Who would have thought you can look a tree and find an owl?

Well, Metroparks interpreters have known that for years!  I’ve been sharing it my birds of prey programming basically since 1994 (my first summer here).  I’ll give you the scoop.

While numerous owl species can be found in Michigan, it is worth it to highlight just two.  After all, these little gifts could be coming to a tree near you.

Saw-whet Owls, like little Rockefeller, and Long-eared Owls function very much alike.  They both hunt rodents during the night and roost during the day.  Your chances of seeing one grab a mouse are just about zero, so don’t hold your breath.  The trick to seeing one is finding it on the roost.

Both species like to hide in either conifers (pine trees) or dense tangles of vines.  Maybe you have some arborvitae (especially those that are a bit more “open”) in your yard? Check it. Those pines in the landscaping at the front of your subdivision?  Check those, too.  Is that a grapevine tangle along the creek?  A close inspection might be worth it. What about the pine stand at the cemetery?  Have at it (but be respectful of where you are). Your location does not really matter. It is all about the roosting sites.   I was once involved with a storyline of a Saw-whet Owl at a car dealership in Southgate.  True, I swear!  You can be in the country, suburbia or urban environments.  It doesn’t matter.  If it is November through March (or so), it is worth a look.

You don’t have to look for the owl at first. Look on the ground under a potential roost.  Yes, folks, you’re looking for poops.  Except we don’t call it poop.  We call it “whitewash”.  Guess what color it is?  It is also chalky and drippy.  Nothing else looks like it, really.  The longer the bird is faithful to a particular spot, the more whitewash you can expect to find.

You can also look for pellets. Undigestible bones and hair are coughed up in the form of, well, a pellet, and can be found under the roost.  A Saw-whet Owl pellet might be the size of a grape while a Long-eared Owl pellet is only slightly larger.

All in all, nothing else does this! If you have a pine tree or tangle with white drippies and funny hair balls during the winter months, you found an owl roost!!!

You can also recruit the efforts of your neighborhood songbirds.  If the chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and others are going absolutely nuts and are concentrating their efforts to a particular part of a tree, it is worth a look, for sure.

In the event you find your roost occupied, back away slowly.  Remember, these birds are there to rest and sleep off their rodent-eating bender from the night before.  Making noise, shaking the tree and other obnoxious behavior is a no-no. Period.

More importantly, if you find your roost occupied, celebrate the fact you have an owl in your yard!  Mother Nature herself has provided you with a fun, little gift.  No bows. No wrappings to clean up or recycle.  No stress.

Just take a minute and appreciate the little things you can have.  After all, the best gifts are not always planned.

Well-hidden Saw-whet Owl was taken at Lake Erie Metropark

This pellet was found underneath a conifer on Grosse Ile. The small size and roost location suggest it is a Saw-whet Owl.

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