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A tiny owl was saved after getting stuck in the Rockefeller Center tree: ‘It’s the Christmas miracle of 2020’

A worker setting up the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree made an unusual discovery this week: a tiny owl hiding near the tree's base. (Ellen Kalish)

Ellen Kalish is used to getting calls about taking in undomesticated animals at her nonprofit group, the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center in Saugerties, N.Y. So when a woman called on Monday asking if she could rehabilitate an owl, she was happy to help.

Then, the caller told her where exactly this tiny owl was hiding out.

“She said, ‘At the Christmas tree in the Rockefeller Center,’ ” Kalish, the founder and director of the center, told The Washington Post. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never heard a story like that.”

The tale of the rescued owl — who has, naturally, since been dubbed “Rockefeller” — quickly became the silver lining of the rocky debut for this year’s version of the iconic Christmas tree. The 75-foot-tall Norway spruce from Oneonta, N.Y., emerged on Saturday looking worse for wear, with some calling its bedraggled branches and thin needles as a “metaphor for 2020.”

The 2020 Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is craned into place on Nov. 14 in New York City. (Video: Tishman Speyer)

Rockefeller Center’s scraggly Christmas tree is deemed ‘a metaphor for 2020’

As the world was busy this weekend mocking the tree — which a Rockefeller Center spokesperson told NBC’s “Today” show will look better after unfolding more following its long ride from upstate — a small stowaway was hiding inside its limbs.

When the spruce was still horizontal early in the process, one of the workers who was unraveling the branches spotted the creature buried in the base of the tree, Kalish said. The woman who called Kalish, who said her husband also works for the company in charge of this task, told her the man initially thought the owl might be injured because it was glued to the tree’s base.

That’s when one of the workers called his wife to tell her he was bringing the owl home, and asking her if she could find a place that specialized in helping wildlife animals.

The raptor, which most likely accompanied the tree in its 170-mile journey to Manhattan, is the smallest of its kind living in the Northeast. So, how did he end up stuck in the tree in the first place?

Kalish, 64, offered a few theories. He could have flocked to the tree to hide in a cavity because he was injured and got trapped later, she said. Or maybe once the tree was loaded onto a truck, the branches squished him into the trunk. Or he was just too traumatized to move.

“There is no proof,” Kalish said. “He could have flown in from Central Park, but I don’t believe that’s true. That would be the last place he would want to go in the middle of chaos and construction. Why would he pick that tree if he had a choice not to? He’s smart and he wouldn’t do that.”

After Kalish got the full story on the owl, she met the woman at a gas station between Saugerties and New Paltz, N.Y. Around 5 p.m. on Monday, the woman handed her a cardboard box with the owl inside. Kalish was surprised by what she found.

“He looked up at me and I was relieved to see that he was looking in relatively good shape,” Kalish said of their first encounter. “The fact that he traveled for a three-day trip, or whatever it took, and he came in not terrible shape is impressive.”

When Kalish brought Rockefeller back to the clinic in the Saugerties, she said she gave him plenty of water and left two mice in the plastic pet carrier. They were gone by the next morning.

On Wednesday, Rockefeller, who has spent most of his time at the wildlife center eating or sleeping, went to the vet to get some X-rays taken. He has no fractures or broken bones, Kalish added. “It’s unreal,” Kalish said.

Rockefeller is not expected to spend too long at the center, she said. She is preparing to release him at dusk, when owls usually wake up, sometime this weekend. The release will be quick and quiet, she said, and she will bring a camera to capture him flying away.

“I will wish him a very long and happy life — something we all strive for,” Kalish said. “For me, it’s the Christmas miracle of 2020. It’s a pretty great story. I was honored to be of service.”

Travis Andrews contributed to this article.