In the time period between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I am often reminded of the experience I had in Yellowstone National Park regarding an unusual Christmas ornament – one that few people are able to say they had on their personal Christmas tree.
Being the first full-time Yellowstone National Park ornithologist, there were countless field experiences that I was fortunate to experience over the course of my fabulous career. One such experience was on Christmas Eve 1999, when I drove by the recently closed Mammoth store and noticed a raucous group of Black-billed Magpies (Pica hudsonia) attacking something on the ground, near the door of the store. I went over to investigate and found several magpies pecking the daylight out of a Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus). Normally I would have let an event like this go, because predation in Yellowstone comes in many forms and is a natural part of the park experience. However, I thought at the time that if I didn’t intervene, the owl would have been history.
When I approached the vulnerable owl, the magpies backed off, but they waited, ready for the kill as soon as I left the scene. So I decided to give the saw-whet a fighting chance. I gently picked up the small owl, placed it in a box and brought it home for rehabilitation. At home, I put it in a dark, warm, and quiet room, and checked on it periodically throughout the night. Finally on or after Christmas Day, I wanted to make sure the owl was capable of flight, so I left the box open to see if it could fly on its own. To my surprise it flew without flaw and headed straight to a tree. The only problem was that the tree the small owl landed in was my family’s Christmas tree, complete with lights and Christmas ornaments. I Ieft the owl in the Christmas tree for most of a day.
As the sun was setting that evening, I released the owl in a forested area near Mammoth, free from magpies and other predators for a while. As it flew away, it brought back the wonderful personal experience of a Northern Saw-whet Owl during Christmas. And so whenever Christmas comes around, I am reminded of the time an unusual Christmas ornament adorned our Yellowstone Christmas tree.
Fun Fact about the Northern Saw-whet Owl
This owl gets its name “saw-whet” from a phrase American ornithologist William Brewster coined in the early 1900’s when he described “the sounds produced by filing a large mill saw”. Years later field ornithologists learned he was talking about the agitation and/or territorial “ksew” call, which resembles a whetstone or grindstone rubbing on metal.
by Terry McEneaney