For the Birds Radio Program: Saw-whet Owl

Original Air Date: April 7, 1989

Today Laura Erickson talks about the tiniest Northland owl of all, the Saw-whet. (3:54)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Saw-whet Owl)

I just got an interesting letter from Kathy Hess of Mason, Wisconsin, who sent me a photo of a Saw-whet Owl sitting on her bird feeder. She wrote:

Thought you’d like to see and hear about the Saw-whet Owl that’s been living at our house for at least a week now. When I first saw it, I identified it with the bird books and learned that they’re extremely tame during the day. A couple of days later, there it was on the suet feeder… So I crept out with the camera to get some pictures. It didn’t seem to mind my presence at all–not even when I’d put my hand inches from it. The following day it slept in our large bird feeder all day despite the chickadees and blue jays being upset and screaming at it for being in ‘their’ feeder! We were concerned that our dog would get it so my husband went and gently tried to scare it away from the feeder but it wasn’t going to give up—it’s a nice place to sleep! So my husband gently picked it up and placed it on a high branch in a nearby tree. Five minutes later the owl was back in the feeder! Then my husband decided to introduce the dog and owl (once our dog is introduced to an animal, she leaves it alone). Our dog sniffed the owl from a few inches away and the owl just sat there! The dog then put her nose right up into the chest feathers for a good sniff and the owl moved over only a couple of inches as if to say, ‘Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep!?’ The owl is still hanging around but I think it’s found a quieter place to sleep during the day. We’re amazed at how tame it is! Come dusk, it’s real active. We’ve sure enjoyed its company!

The Hesses are among the privileged few people who ever see Saw-whet Owls. These secretive little birds of prey are extremely nocturnal, and virtually never move at all by daylight. Their well-known habit of sitting still when approached by people, which Kathy Hess got to observe literally first hand, has been attributed to “tameness, stupidity, or fearlessness.”

Not everyone gets to see a Saw-whet perched right on or in their feeders, but that’s not the only way to find one. They sit so still on their daytime roosts that you aren’t likely to spot one on your own, but chickadees, sparrows, warblers, and kinglets are constantly on the lookout for them, since Saw-whets have been known to eat these little birds. If you hear an angry chickadee on a walk through the woods, check it out—there may well be a Saw-whet or a Boreal Owl nearby.

Although Saw-whet Owls migrate in big numbers, it wasn’t until the late 1960’s that ornithologists knew about it. These secretive raptors are hardly ever seen by anyone, so it was hard to determine exactly what their range was at any time of year. 24 dead ones washed ashore on Lake Huron in October, 1906, after a storm, giving ornithologists the first evidence that these owls moved around at all. Now, of course, their migration habits are better known, thanks in large part to Dave Evans, our own Hawk Ridge bander. This past autumn he netted and banded 650 Saw-whets–594 in October alone. Only three of the owls were returns–he netted 2 owls this past fall which had been banded in 1987, and one from 1984—that one was at least four years old.

Saw-whets usually nest in flicker holes, but are known to accept bird boxes. If you would like construction plans to build a bird house designed for these elegant little birds, drop me a line.
(Recording of a Saw-whet Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”