For the Birds Radio Program: Saw-whet Owls: Early Spring
Imagine a weekend of northern birding and dog sledding by day, and enjoying a saw-whet owl by night.
In the middle of March, I spent a weekend in Brimson, Minnesota, with my friend Kathleen Anderson, helping with one of her winter adventures for women-the women tried their hand at dog-sledding with Kathleen and bird-watching with me. One nearby lake was still frozen and mostly snow-covered, so that’s where we went for sledding. I’ve never been on a dog sled before, and it was wonderfully fun, first sitting on it and just riding along, and then actually driving it for a bit. The dogs are a lot more assertive than my little Photon-she’s a thirteen pound Bichon frise who fancies herself a sled dog but could only manage to pull a very tiny sled. I was afraid she might be mistaken for dog food by the sled dogs, so she had to stay home.
Birds were easier to find than snow that weekend, but not much. Kathleen’s feeders were bustling with redpolls, chickadees, Evening Grosbeaks, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, and a bazillion Gray Jays zipping in to take chunks of dog’s meat. Blue Jays appeared now and then, and crows and ravens flew over occasionally, but that was it for birds, at least during daylight.
When darkness fell, I showed slides of a wider variety of species, and after we put the slides away, we found our best bird of all. A most cooperative little Saw-whet Owl sat in the middle of an aspen tree making its little “co” calls, sounding like a truck backing up, jutting forward and opening its beak wide with every “co” just like a little cuckoo-clock bird. It was a lively little silhouette against the full moon, and when we put a flashlight on it and looked through my Zeiss binoculars, everyone got satisfying looks. The one time expensive optics are truly worth their weight in gold is at nighttime when there is a lovely little owl. The light-gathering capabilities of high-quality binoculars always amaze me at night when there is something worth seeing.
Saw-whet Owls are tiny and endearing-they’re to Great Homed Owls what Bichons are to sled dogs–fluffy and cute, easy to discount, but with fully as much heart and soul as their larger relatives. Like my little Photon, Saw-whet Owls don’t realize they’re cute-they see themselves as fierce and mighty predators, and deer mice ignore them on pain of death. There is at least one record from 1924 of a Saw-whet killing and eating a Rock Dove, but insects, very small birds, and mice are the normal fare. Saw-whets are so little that there is even a record of one found dead that apparently choked trying to swallow a deer mouse whole.
I once cared for a baby saw whet who tried eating the front half of a huge mouse that I had thawed and was in the process of cutting up. I was amazed at how wide he could open his mouth to get the midsection in. He used his downward-pointing beak to ratchet it down, but he could hardly inch it down. He didn’t even millimeter it down–he sort of angstromed it down. It took him a full 15-minutes to get it far enough in that the only part sticking out of his mouth was the mouse’s little nose and whiskers-by this point his neck was totally distended and his head pointed skyward. Then, with one huge gulp, the mouse went down the hatch and he turned to blink at me with a wonderfully smug, self-satisfied look. I was struck by his determination and pride.
Saw-whet Owls are cavity nesters, but don’t have a clue how to build their own cavity. So they search out nest holes built in previous years by flickers and Pileated Woodpeckers. They rarely if ever use their own nest two years in a row-apparently all the little decaying prey animal parts make it a rather unsavory baby cradle for a while. They are subject to nasty parasites if they use a year-old starling nest, too. But if they find a safe place, they raise three or four little baby owls that will brighten our spring evenings with their lovely calls and feisty ways for years to come.