What are the chances Chicago's Christmas tree also hosts a Saw-whet Owl?

It’s a bit of viral news that may have launched a thousand children’s book concepts

The news came across yesterday that a Northern Saw-whet Owl was a stowaway in a Christmas tree en route from upstate New York to Rockefeller Center. The story of this objectively cute little raptor quickly made its way across the web and social channels. But before you go peering at Chicago’s tree—or really any evergreen—looking for owls, here are a few items to consider.

The big picture

Chicago’s Christmas tree has been in place at Millennium Park since Nov. 9. This is the first year that the tree has come from within the city limits, from the Morgan Park neighborhood on the Far South Side. Saw-whet Owls can turn up most anywhere in the northern United States in winter, and they may be more common in the Midwest than we realize. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that an owl could be in the Millennium Park tree. 

Whether the type of tree matters

The New York owl, now nicknamed Rockefeller naturally, came from a Norway spruce. Chicago’s tree is a blue spruce, so there isn’t much of a difference there. Saw-whets often turn up in cedars, too. But there’s also a very high likelihood of not finding a saw-whet in a conifer, and they even prefer vegetation like buckthorn that pervades some parts of the Chicago area. Again, they can still be hard to observe due to their size and behavior.

Location, location, location

Rockefeller came from outside a general store in Oneonta rather than the vast tracts of woodland one might imagine in upstate New York. Morgan Park is a city neighborhood with a suburb-like feel. The two locations might have more in common than one would think. And there have been reports going back to the 19th century suggesting that Saw-whets have a propensity for visiting cities and towns.

What’s the data show?

This is an eBird map of recent sightings of Saw-whet Owls on the South Side of Chicago. Morgan Park is just a little north of Blue Island on the map. The markers show sightings older than 30 days. Some of these are from decades ago so this may not be the best gauge. Further, many sightings don’t get entered into eBird so as to protect owls from harassment. And surely many birds are being overlooked.

The verdict

It’s not altogether impossible that a Saw-whet Owl could end up in Chicago’s tree, but it’s just as unlikely as in New York—it’s what makes the story special. Though a bit fanciful, the thought of a Chicago owl possibly riding along on a Chicago tree to Millennium Park is one worth pondering.