Northern Saw-whet Owls are one of the smallest owls in the world. Though to their favorite prey, mice, as well as to other small mammals, they are fierce, silent hunters, planning on making a meal of them. Saw-whet owls also occasionally hunt small birds and will sometimes dine on insects. These tiny owls live in forested areas throughout most of Canada, the United States, and some areas of Mexico and are seldom seen. Being highly nocturnal, saw-whet owls spend their days roosting, camouflaged within the foliage of trees, waiting silently until late into dusk before beginning to hunt.
Nick’s video gives you an idea of how still and quietly a saw-whet may roost – even though the saw-whet is watching birds and appears startled at one point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXQJb_eJALY
In this blog I will share eight of my favorite facts about saw-whet owls.
1) The plumage coloration of the juvenile and adult saw-whet owl is so vastly different that if you are unfamiliar with the species you would think they were two different types of owls. Around the age of one year, juveniles will complete their first molt. At this time they acquire their adult plumage. The saw-whets will also become sexually mature at this age and may begin breeding.
2) The female saw-whet owl does all the incubation and brooding while the male hunts. When the young are about 18 days old, the female leaves the nest and roosts elsewhere, often not returning to help care for the nestlings. The male, however, will continue to feed the young even after the female has left, as well as for at least a month after the young have fledged (flown from the nest).
3) During the time the female saw-whet is actively participating in the care of the nestlings, she keeps the nest very clean. After she abandons the area, leaving the feeding of the young to the male, a mess begins to accumulate. By the time the young leave the nest, the nest cavity has a layer of leftover prey parts, feces, and pellets.
4) Saw-whet owls are often thought of as “tame,” because humans can easily approach them. Sometimes these owls can even be picked up from the branch they are roosting on! It is believed that this may be due to the owls having never previously encountering humans in their dense forest habitat and therefore they do not perceive us as dangerous.
5) A Saw-whet owl will often catch a mouse during the night, carry the prey to its daytime roost, and stand on the prey until the following evening before eating it.
In this short video you will observe a saw-whet owl standing on prey while roosting during the day.
6) Saw-whet owls will cache extra food. They may kill as many as 6 mice, one after the other, without consuming any of them during the time of the hunt. In the winter, the cached prey may freeze. When the cached prey is retrieved, it will be carried to a roosting area where the owl will thaw the prey by lying down on it in the same manner they incubate eggs.
7) When a saw-whet feels threatened, it will elongate its body, often bringing one wing around to the front of its body to hide its legs and feet. It is believed this is to help camouflage the owl by causing it to appear more like a tree branch.
8) Many owl species have asymmetrical ears. Saw-whet and boreal owls, however, have the most asymmetrical ears of all the owl species. The right ear opening is higher and faces upward, while the left ear opening is located low on the head and faces downward. Tilting the head until sounds reach both ear openings at the same time, these owls can detect prey with incredible accuracy.
The photo of the saw-whet owl held in a gloved hand was posted on the Draper Museum Raptor Experience’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/DraperMuseumRaptorExperience/?fref=nf&pnref=story
The northern saw-whet owl perched on a tree branch by Nick Ciaravella was used with permission from https://www.facebook.com/MoosejawBravo/?fref=photo
Three immature saw-whet owls by Kathy and Sam, Attribution License
Adult saw-whet at night by Herman Mays, Noncommercial Attribution License
Photo of two immature saw-whet owls in nesting tree, nebirdsplus, noncommercial license, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nebirdsplus
Profile of saw-whet chick in nesting tree by Marcel Holyoak, Noncommercial Attribution License, https://www.flickr.com/photos/maholyoak
Photo of northern saw-whet owl on shoulder, taken during a banding project with Rocky Point Bird Observatory at their Pedder Bay Station. Posted by Zombie Leah, Noncommercial Attribution License: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zombie-leah
Saw-whet owl in flight, a free download from http://chainimage.com