ONEONTA, N.Y. — A 24-hour armed guard and police presence weren’t enough to keep a stowaway from sneaking off on the Rockefeller Christmas tree when it was chopped down here last week and shipped off to New York City.

The 75-foot-tall, 11-ton Norway spruce taken from an Oneonta lawn on Thursday, Nov. 12, was on its way to Manhattan when a member of the crew spotted a tiny owl tucked inside its branches.

At 5 inches tall and 2½ ounces, the owl since named Rockefeller was at first mistaken for a baby, but the coloring of its feathers indicates it is full-grown, Ellen Kalish, director of the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center in Saugerties, noted in a Facebook post.

The saw-whet owl, one of the smallest of any North American species, was brought to Kalish’s center where it cleared a veterinary exam and is recovering before a planned release back into the wild this weekend, she said.

“He’s doing all the good things that owls do,” she said. “We’re feeding him all the mice he can eat.”

It’s not clear how the winged wanderer made the 200-mile journey without being discovered earlier. A representative of Rockefeller Center says every branch of the tree is inspected before the tree is wrapped, though birds sometimes find their way in.

Kalish suspects this stowaway was on board from the start. Because of their camouflage coloring and “extremely nocturnal” nature, she said, saw-whet owls are hardly ever seen in the daytime.

“He was very hungry and very thirsty,” she said. “You could tell he hadn’t eaten in days.”

The wildlie center takes in stranded or injured birds of prey several times a year — usually red-tailed hawks or barn owls not quite swift enough to dodge passing cars when swooping in on their prey.

Rockefeller is not its first resident saw-whet owl, either: the tiny creatures are often brought in after becoming entangled in a garden fence.

Kalish said the owl’s cranky expression captured in early photos was not unique. “They’re all like that,” she said with a laugh.

Like its unwitting mascot, the Rockefeller tree has been assigned a personality of its own, invoking internet comments ridiculing its shabby appearance as it was put in place in Midtown Manhattan.

Representatives of Rockefeller Center have said their trees usually look that way as they are unloaded from shipping, and before the trees are prepared for decorating.

“Wow, you all must look great right after a two-day drive, huh?” read a tweet on the Rockefeller Center account Wednesday. “Just wait until I get my lights on!”

A clerk at Daddy Al’s General Store in Oneonta said Allan Dick, who donated the tree, is no longer doing interviews.

Rockefeller Center representatives scout trees years in advance and tend to them before the time comes to cut them down. In the days leading to the big chop in Oneonta, an armed guard was posted to protect the Dick family’s tree.

The tree will be trimmed with about five miles of string lights containing 50,000 multi-color LED bulbs, and crowned with a 900-pound, three-dimensional star more than nine feet in diameter and encrusted with 3 million Swarovski crystals.

A tree-lighting ceremony on Wednesday, Dec. 2, will not be open to the public but broadcast live from 7 to 10 p.m. on NBC. Spectators may view the lit tree in person from 6 a.m. to midnight, daily.

Sarah Eames writes for The Daily Star of Oneonta, New York. 

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