A very sought after owl among birders, the northern saw-whet owl is one of the smallest owl species and is aptly named for its raspy call that can sound like a saw being sharpened or whetted.
Northern Saw-Whet Owl
- Bill: Strongly hooked, black or dark gray
- Size: 7-8 inches long with 18-20-inch wingspan, large head, wide shoulders, short tail
- Colors: Buff, brown, white, black, tan, chestnut, yellow
- Markings: Genders are similar though females are generally larger. The eyes are yellow or yellow-orange with a black pupil and a thin black eye ring, and they stand out in the buff facial disk to give the bird a surprised or curious expression. A white patch stands out between the eyes and connects to bushy white eyebrows. The crown and forehead are brown with fine white streaking, and the upperparts are a chestnut brown or dark tan with white and buff spotting, especially on the wings and shoulders. The underparts are white with blotchy brown or chestnut streaks, and the undertail coverts are plain white. The legs and feet are feathered with short whitish-buff feathers, but may show their yellow skin underneath. These owls lack ear tufts.
Juveniles have dark chocolate brown upperparts and show buff wing spots, and the face is dark with a white triangle on the forehead. The underparts range from a chestnut to yellow-buff color.
Rodents, insects, bats, amphibians (See: Carnivorous)
Habitat and Migration:
Northern saw-whet owls prefer coniferous forests, though they are also found in mixed coniferous and deciduous woodlands, particularly in autumn and winter, as well as in coniferous swamps and similar habitats. These owls are year-round residents of mountainous wooded areas along the Pacific Coast and in the Rocky Mountains from Alaska to California and into central Mexico. Their year-round range stretches across southern Canada to the Atlantic Coast and south into northern Michigan and the Appalachian Mountains.
In winter, the northernmost populations of these birds will migrate, and they can become more widespread throughout the northern United States, but are generally missing from the most open areas of the Great Plains as well as the southeastern part of the country. Vagrant sightings, however, have regularly been recorded in areas where these owls are not expected.
These owls sing frequently during the breeding season and can also sing throughout the year, though less often. The song is an even, pipe-like "oo-oo-oo-oo-oo" that is repeated in a long sequence, and can carry a half mile or more. Other calls and sounds include a rising "whooo-OOOO" call, bark-like hoots, a chatter alarm call, bill snaps and various twitters.
These are typically solitary birds but can be found in pairs during the breeding season. They are primarily nocturnal and hunt from perches, waiting for prey to approach before swooping down to catch a meal. When startled or threatened, their first response is to freeze and stay immobile, which can give the impression that they are tame or approachable, though in fact they are stressed in this condition and should be left alone.
These are monogamous owls. As cavity-nesting birds, they choose abandoned woodpecker holes, natural tree cavities or large nesting boxes, and if nesting sites are scarce, they may nest in deep, sheltered brush. Nesting sites are generally 14-60 feet high, and their cavities contain no nesting material to cushion the oval-shaped, plain white eggs. There can be 4-10 eggs per brood, but only one brood is laid each year.
The female parent incubates the eggs for 26-29 days while the male brings her food. After the eggs have hatched, both parents will care for the owlets for an additional 28-35 days until the young birds are able to leave the nest and successfully forage for themselves.
Attracting Northern Saw-Whet Owls:
These owls are not typically seen in backyards but could be attracted by coniferous trees, especially white pines, as well as larger nest boxes that could accommodate their broods. In the field, birders should look close to tree trunks to spot northern saw-whet owls, and while these birds will respond to recorded owl calls, bird recordings should be used sparingly, particularly during the nesting season.
Northern saw-whet owls are not endangered or threatened, but they can be susceptible to habitat loss through logging operations. The removal of dead trees that would serve as nest sites can also impact breeding success for these birds.