For the Birds Radio Program: Saw-whet Owl: Fall migration

Original Air Date: Oct. 17, 2000 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Oct. 10, 2019; Oct. 24, 2013; Oct. 7, 2008; Oct. 5, 2007; Oct. 14, 2004; Oct. 16, 2002

Hundreds of Saw-whet Owls are banded at Hawk Ridge every fall.

Duration: 4′58″


My two sons, Tommy, born fifteen years ago on October 7, and Joey, born nineteen years ago on October 10, were heralded into this world during owl migration. Every year around the time I’m celebrating their birthdays, I’m spending at least some of my nights in my backyard, whistling and shining a flashlight in hopes of a glimpse at the cutest little owl of all, the Saw-whet. And every now and then I succeed. Already this year handers at Hawk Ridge have caught over 500.

When people find Saw-whet Owls in the daytime, the tiny predators hold tight, hardly moving a muscle. They’re strictly nocturnal and vulnerable to large songbirds like robins and Blue Jays attacking them. That and the fact that they’re so often featured on calendars and postcards give most people an expectation that the birds are always sedentary and still.

But at nighttime when they’re hunting, saw-whets are extremely and surprisingly animated, moving not only their heads but their whole bodies every which way as they search the ground and even some tree branches for littler morsels to sustain their bodies. One October midnight when my Springer spaniel Betsy was a new puppy, I let her outside and in zoomed a Saw-whet Owl straight for the tiny white spot on her dark liver-colored back. A few millimeters from ground zero, the owl suddenly realized it wasn’t about to catch a tiny mouse—it was opening its little talons to an entire puppy. Saw-whets may be optimistic, but they’re not stupid, and this one put the brakes on in mid-air, turned tail and flew into a spruce tree next to my back porch. I gazed at him from the porch, and our eyes met momentarily, but people hold a lot less interest for a Saw-whet than a Saw-whet holds for us. He quickly broke eye contact and went back to scrutinizing the ground, knowing that a single deer mouse could do a lot more good for his kind than people ever have. Some people look up at the stars, so huge, so far away, so brilliant, so unreachable, to remind themselves of our insignificance in the overall scheme of the universe. But we can also see our insignificance reflected in the eyes of a Saw-whet Owl.

Of course, most of the time a person doesn’t really want to search the natural world in hopes of discovering new evidence of his or her inconsequentiality. Fortunately, when they’re not hunting, Saw-whet Owls sometimes condescend to puff up our egos. When handers at Hawk Ridge have more than one little owl to deal with, they don’t restrain the surplus in dark tubes until they can record the necessary data and band them the way they do hawks in waiting. When extra Saw-whets are waiting to be weighed, measured, and ringed, they sit unrestrained on a shelf in the banding station. The little birds watch everything going on, seemingly fascinated by human activity. When the handers finally finish with one and take it to the door for release, sometimes it isn’t finished with them-perhaps it’s also collecting data, amassing information about human behavior. Or maybe it sticks around just because it likes us. Whatever the reason, sometimes it flies right back in the door, sticking around a while longer.

During daylight, these winsome raptors can be anywhere, though they usually hide out near the trunks of thick conifers. If a chickadee flock sounds agitated, or robins make their sharp call notes, check out the branches near them-there may be a little owl about, especially this month. And occasionally check out the branches of your backyard and neighborhood conifers. Saw­ whets are often seen at eye level. If you’re lucky enough to find one, it will often stay put for the rest of the day, allowing you to savor it at close range. We may be insignificant to them, but these winsome birds of the moonlight are at least more approachable than the stars.