For the Birds Radio Program: Saw-whet Owls
Tiny owls are turning up in the Northland, and seeing one makes a memorable experience. 4:03
Anytime we see an owl, it’s a red-letter day, and when we begin a month with a Saw-whet Owl, it’s exciting even by red-letter day standards. When a kind woman named Carol called early in the morning on March first to tell me about a little owl sitting in her spruce tree, I was over there as quick as you could say “Saw-whet Owl.” Well, almost—I had to get my kids off to school first.
A saw-whet weighs only three ounces—less than a quarter pound hamburger patty without the bun. But as if to compensate for its small size, the Saw-whet has an enormous presence. Those we see in daylight sit rather still, but the thrill when their enormous yellow eyes meet ours is matchless. This one was animated for daytime—it must not have eaten well the night before. It craned its neck and looked about, checking out the Kenwood Road traffic and searching the ground for any critters that might wander within striking distance. Curiosity is one defining characteristic of the species, and friendly sociability towards humans is another, but towards small creatures they’re as ferocious as tiny tigers. When an ornithologist in the 20s shot one owl and opened it up, its stomach held an entire flying squirrel, apparently swallowed whole.
Unless a saw-whet is sitting on a front porch or wood pile, the easiest way to find them in daytime is to listen for cussing chickadees, and the reason chickadees hate them so is just what you’d expect. No, Saw-whet Owls aren’t friendly to their fellow creatures. On the other hand, they’re a prime food item for bigger species of owls. Saw-whets tend to call only to attract a mate, rather than to defend a territory, and as soon as a female shows up on a male’s territory, he clams up for the season. Their call is well within the hearing range of Barred and Great Horned Owls, who consider the whistle their dinner bell.
Saw-whet Owls are probably the cutest creatures on the planet. I suppose it may be a case of the old adage that you are what you eat—they’ve apparently taken on some of the sweet, cute characteristics of their chickadee meals. They’re much more common than most people realize. Between 500 and 1100 are banded every year at Hawk Ridge. 292 were banded on the night of October 6-7, 1989 alone.
This year they’ve returned north earlier than usual, perhaps because of the overall mild temperatures and small snow cover. There’ve been many reports of them in the past three weeks. March is a tricky time to be an owl. Their fat reserves and food supplies are at their lowest levels, and alternating thaws and freezes make the snow crusty and hard, difficult to plunge into for the few remaining mice. Ice storms and blizzards will be an expected part of the weather patterns for another six or seven weeks. But increasing daylength brings out the optimism in these little owls. And optimistic they are—last October when I let our little springer spaniel Betsy outside one midnight, a saw-whet flew down and tried to seize the little white spot on her back, which the owl apparently mistook for a mouse. When it discovered its mistake, it wasn’t embarrassed—it just flew to a nearby spruce tree and studied the two of us as hard as I studied it. Every Saw-whet Owl I’ve ever seen is etched permanently in my memory, and a head full of visions of saw-whet owls is a happy head, indeed.