For the Birds Radio Program: Hurt Saw-whet Owl

Original Air Date: May 14, 2001 Rerun Dates: April 11, 2019; May 2, 2003

When some listeners brought Laura a hurt Saw-whet Owl, she discovered that it was at least seven years old! [UPDATE 2019: The Patuxent Bird Banding Lab lists the ages of four Saw-whets, 9 years 5 months (Ontario), 8 years 3 months (California), 7 years 5 months (Ontario), and 3 years 10 months (Ontario). For some reason, this bird didn’t make it into the record books. We weren’t told whether it recovered or not.]

Duration: 5′27″


On May 6, a man called me from Pike Lake. He and his family had been driving to Duluth from Meadowlands in the rain when they came upon a hurt Saw-whet Owl disoriented and hobbling about on the side of the highway. Something about an injured Saw-whet Owl demands attention and care, so the family pulled over and picked it up. The poor little thing had a horrible head injury. Blood had pooled in its eye, the inner ear seemed damaged based on how badly it listed to one side, and to top it all off, the owl was soaking wet, and felt cold to the touch. As soon as they found a telephone, called me to find out what to do. They were headed for my neighborhood of Duluth, so I told them to bring it over.

It was a tiny owl, though its pectoral muscles felt plump and well-fed. I’ve held enough Saw­ whets to have a good sense of size, so I knew this was a male, since female owls are always larger than males. He seemed calm, but I can’t always judge by that because some species of owls, including Saw-whets, respond to gentle treatment and calm down virtually immediately. He did appear alert, watching my dog Photon’s every move, but the pupil of his good eye seemed sluggish responding to light.

Just looking at him, I knew he needed serious medical attention, but something caught my attention even more than his injuries–the aluminum band on his leg. This was a banded bird, and the band seemed rather worn and faded. The person in Duluth most qualified to deal with injured raptors and to get them down to the Raptor Center is Dave Evans, who just happens to also be the man who bands Saw-whets at Hawk Ridge every fall. So I brought the little guy to him.

Dave looked up the number in his book and saw that he was the one who’d banded the owl, back on October 11, 1995. At the time, the bird was already an adult. This means the owl couldn’t have been hatched more recently than the spring of 1994, and so now was at least 7 years old, possibly even older. Seven years is extremely close to the record longevity for a Saw-whet Owl in the wild, and may even be the record, but the Patuxent Bird Banding Laboratory’s website was closed for some reason, so we haven’t been able to verify it yet. Of course, even if he’s not the oldest at this point, he may be released to break the record, though the chances of recovering the little guy another time are remote at best.

Finding out the owl’s age was exciting for Dave and me, but the little owl didn’t care one way or the other. Longevity records are meaningless when it comes right down to it–only a miniscule fraction of birds are ever banded to begin with, and only a miniscule fraction of them are ever recaptured to find out how long they’ve lived, so we have no idea how old Saw-whets who elude handers and cars live to be. Anyway, the significance of this little bird surviving at least 7 years is hardly diminished if another Saw-whet is discovered to have lived even longer.

This time of year, this Saw-whet was most certainly nesting, with his mate probably incubating eggs right now. He certainly won’t be releasable soon, but with luck she will attract another mate to help her raise the babies. It’s sad when any owl is injured or dies, but somehow saddest of all in spring. Most birds die during fall and winter. It seems a cruel twist of fate for a bird to survive the hazards of fall migration, then make it through the harshest season and the return spring flight only to be hit by a car. Most birds are easy to avoid hitting if you drive carefully, but Saw-whets are nocturnal, and if they dart at a large moth in your headlights, or fly too low across a road while lugging a heavy mouse, you can’t possibly see them until it’s too late. Right now, thinking of the uncertainly of this bird’s survival is far more worrisome than the uncertainly of whether he’s broken the longevity record for his species. I only hope that in a month or two he’ll be returned to the wild. This bird has had at least three encounters with humans–first when he was banded in ‘95, second when he was struck by a car, and third when he was caught and brought to the raptor center via me and Dave. We humans derived ornithological information from his first encounter with us, he got hurt in the second–I sure hope three is the charm and that this encounter with humans gives him the two things he needs most: time and health.