For the Birds Radio Program: Saw-whet Owl

Original Air Date: Oct. 23, 1995

Today Laura Erickson tells how to find a Saw-whet Owl, and what to do if you get a Saw-whet Owl in your house. 3:29

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Last Sunday, I got a call from some nearby friends who needed some help. They’d heard a loud thump at their window, and looked out to find a badly-hurt saw-whet owl on the ground below. I went over to retrieve it.

The story sounded odd to me. Sunday was a sunny, bright day, and saw-whet owls are notoriously sedentary by day even under cloudy conditions. When I saw the bird, I became even more suspicious—its wing was torn and bleeding, and it had a laceration on its back. Seeing that made me realize what had really happened. The owl must have been snatched up by one of the thousands of hawks migrating through that day, and it was the hawk who hit the window, dropped its prey, and flew off.

The tiny owl was in shock, so the moment I got it home, I gave it some Ringer’s solution to bring up its electrolyte levels. Not much in the universe is cuter than a saw-whet owl, and I haven’t had one in the house in years, so everyone in the house made a fuss over it. We all put our ears to its back, listening to its rapid heart beat, and I showed everyone its huge, cavernous ear, hidden under the feathers on the side of its head. It seemed to be coming out of shock now, and was starting to take an interest in its new surroundings. And the birds in my house were taking a big interest in the little owl. My Gray Jay started making her fussy alarm call, Sneakers started squawking, and even my little Cedar Waxwing started piping little obscenities, so I gave it some more electrolytes and had Russ drive me over to the Hawk Ridge banding station to bring it to Dave Evans. Dave’s the kind of guy who keeps dead mice in his freezer as a matter of course, and he also keeps track of every knowledgeable raptor person who drives down to the Twin Cities. He quickly arranged transportation to get this bird to the Raptor Center in St. Paul.

Saw-whet owls are surprisingly abundant migrants through north country. The Hawk Ridge banders have netted well over a hundred on each of five or six nights so far this season, and have banded dozens virtually every night since mid-September. Imagine these tiny hunters silently winging over our houses as we sleep. They can sometimes be lured in close with recordings or imitations of their calls, and are wonderful to watch in the dead of night, when they come to life. Their eyes are fixed in their sockets, so to look around, they move their whole bodies this way and that, so wonderfully animated and interested in everything. The biggest numbers of migrants are found on still, clear nights. If you want to try your luck at finding them in your yard, you have to wait until well after dark, and use a recording or whistle a steady monotone. The worst that can happen, unless your neighbors call the police, is that you’ll see nothing but trees silhouetted against a starry sky, but if you luck out, a tiny owl will wing in and fill your October evening with warmth and brightness.