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The northern saw-whet owl is our smallest common owl, often migrating from the south to Prince Edward Island during March and early April but occasionally being found through the winter. Though nocturnal, this is one owl that can be seen during the day.
The saw-whet is a charming bird, looking more like a toy than an efficient wood-land predator. It is quite small, 17.5 cm (7″) long with a wingspan of 42.5 cm (17″). This size, combined with the yellow eyes and distinctive brown and white coloration, make for a very attractive visitor. Some years these are our most easily seen owls. They can arrive well before the snow is gone and food can be scarce. These owls regularly turn up around houses and especially feeders, looking for rodents feeding on sunflower seeds and grains that have fallen to the ground. Even with this food source, saw-whets are commonly found dead near houses and on porches, probably seeking a warmer place to shelter. They also tend to perch at low heights in trees or on fence posts, making them easy to see. Like most owls, they are often mobbed by other birds, so if you hear blue jays making a racket and see them dive bombing lower parts of a tree, it might just be that they are trying to drive a roosting saw-whet out of their territory. Following the calls of the blue jays will often provide a most interesting sighting.
The sound of a saw-whet is another easy aid to identification. The distinct call is a long series of regular notes, sounding like a C-note on a recorder or the warning signal of a snow plow or large truck backing up. At night, following this call can lead you to the saw-whet.
Saw-whet owls are at home in most mixed woods forests, roosting by day in dense conifers.
Saw-whets feed primarily on small rodents such as mice and voles. Occasionally they will take small birds, amphibians and even bats. Like most owls, they have several adaptations that make them efficient hunters. The flight feathers are serrated at the tips, which muffles the sound of wings during flight. They also have strong talons made for gripping prey. Their relatively large eyes, and the facial discs that direct sound to their ears, are also assets to these hunters.
These owls begin nesting in early April, usually taking over an old woodpecker nest. The 4-7 eggs take from three to four weeks to hatch out. In another month, the chicks are fledged and ready to fly and begin hunting for themselves.
Saw-whet owls can benefit from good conservation practices. They are secondary cavity nesters – the hooked beak is made for. ripping meat, not chiseling holes in trees. The usual succession is that saw-whets will take over and enlarge an old hairy woodpecker or flicker nest. The woodpeckers carry out the initial excavation, so the habitat has to be suitable to these birds as well. In old field white spruce, the poplars are often key to this succession, since they are trees that quickly become big enough to support cavities and are soft enough to make for easy excavating. If you are carrying out forest enhancement programs such as small strip cuts and patch cuts in such stands, leaving large poplars and red maples will be of great benefit to these birds. Another important conservation practice is to make sure your cutting is outside the breeding season, which occurs during April and May. Saw-whet owls also respond well to the presence of nest boxes, especially where there are no other suitable cavities. As with our other raptors, it is illegal to hunt any owls in this country. Though these tiny owls once were worn as hat ornaments in New York in the late 1800’s, they are now protected and a saw-whet sighting is much sought-after by birders.