Created by artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in the late 1990s, Typewriter Eraser, Scale X is a large, colorful sculpture depicting this once-common but now obsolete tool. It stands outdoors at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
A few weeks ago, on the morning of October 13, staffers who take care of the sculpture garden’s grounds spotted something strange: Feathers were poking out of the nearly 20-foot-tall sculpture’s blue bristles.
When they got closer, they saw that a barred owl had become stuck in the large-scale artwork, according to the Washington Post’s Alisa Tang. Brett McNish, a supervisory horticulturist who works at the sculpture garden, donned a pair of thick gloves, ascended a ladder and carefully removed the trapped bird.
Workers wrapped the owl in a blanket and took it to City Wildlife. The rehabilitation facility’s staffers shared the story on social media, writing that the bird had been rescued “after his impromptu performance art piece, titled ‘HELP, I’m stuck!’ was discovered and dismantled by gallery staff.”
This handsome #BarredOwl was rescued from the @NationalGallery of Art Sculpture Garden after his impromptu performance art piece, titled "HELP, I'm stuck!" was discovered and dismantled by gallery staff. pic.twitter.com/vVDDkXFoyy— City Wildlife (@DCCityWildlife) October 23, 2023
The bird was in bad shape when it arrived at City Wildlife: X-rays revealed it didn’t have any broken bones, but it did have a swollen right shoulder, and it wasn’t eating.
“It was extremely lethargic, and it looked really sad,” says Jim Monsma, City Wildlife’s executive director, to the Washington Post. “It looked like it had just given up: ‘This is all too much. I’m throwing in the towel.’”
Staffers hand-fed the owl small pieces of food and gave it a large cage in a private room to recuperate. They also treated it with medication to help ease its pain and reduce inflammation. After roughly a week, they felt the owl’s condition had improved enough that they could transfer it to Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Delaware.
There, the barred owl got to stretch its wings inside a 100-foot-long enclosure while veterinarians kept a close watch on it. Pleased with its progress, they released the bird back into the wild on October 23.
“This is the first instance that we are aware of regarding wildlife getting caught in a sculpture,” McNish tells the Washington Post. “Occasionally, we see hawks momentarily perched on other taller sculptures in the garden, but never on Eraser. This is the first owl seen in the garden.”
Barred owls live year-round throughout the eastern United States, as well as in parts of the Pacific Northwest and southern Canada. They have mottled brown and white feathers that help them blend in with the mature trees that make up their preferred forested habitats. They typically stand between 17 and 20 inches tall and have wingspans of up to 43 inches.
Once they’ve picked an area to inhabit, barred owls typically don’t stray far; most hang out within a six-mile radius. Their calls often sound like the phrase, “Who cooks for you?” They primarily hunt at night, spending their days resting in trees.