For the birds: Northern Saw-whet Owl

Sunday, September 29, 2013

By Christine Southwick

Here's a great little native owl, that needs our help -- at least we think it does....

Northern Saw-whet owl
Photo by Scott Ramos
Northern Saw-whet Owl

A small owl, only 8 inches in height, the Saw-whet Owl gets its name from its alarm call, which reminds people of a large saw being sharpened. This mostly silent owl only vocalizes during the March thru July breeding season. The rest of the year it is silent unless alarmed.

Hard to find the first time
Photo by Bill Anderson

This little owl’s favorite food is mice, especially deer mice, which it usually catches by dropping down from a low cedar, or other evergreen branch. Northern Saw-whet Owls are strictly nocturnal hunters, with their highest activity being in late dusk and early dawn. They also eat shrews, voles, moles, squirrels, house mice, and sometimes small birds. When the hunting is really good, Northern Saw-whet Owls have been known to kill up to six mice in rapid succession, and then cache them in safe places to be eaten later.

These little owls nests in abandoned woodpecker holes, usually found in deciduous tree snags, , with the female incubating the 3-7 eggs, and the male feeding her during this four week period. The young leave the nest at one-to-two day intervals, and the parents feed and teach their single brood for the next several weeks.

Elongating to look like a limb
Photo by Jeff Kozma

Some Northern Saw-whet Owls are resident, but the majority in WA migrate into Canada in the spring, and return to the damper Pacific Northwest lowlands for the winter, where they often roost near forest openings or garden edges with dense evergreens.  They will use the same low (four to ten feet from the ground) daytime roost for extended periods of time, and if found will elongate their profile to evade detection, and then sit still rather than fly.  This has led some people into thinking of them as being tame.

Because these owls are silent most of the year, it is hard to determine their population.   Their numbers may be dwindling locally, but more study is needed.

Photo by Jamie Acker

One of the greatest dangers for these little owls is lack of nesting sites.  As people cut down dead trees eight inches or larger in diameter, there are less places for woodpeckers to make nests, and therefore less old nest holes suitable for saw-whets to make into their next nesting site.

NSWO will readily use nest boxes, and the Puget Sound Bird Observatory has owl box kits for sale. People are encouraged to hang boxes to aid these small native owls and report their nesting to PSBO.


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