Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)


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.

Feeding habits:

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.

Upcoming Events

7:30 pm Owl Prowl
Owl Prowl
Apr 27 @ 7:30 pm – 9:00 pm
Come join the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in celebrating the wonderful world of owls at one of this year’s Owl Prowls. To meet the growing interest in these fascinating birds, there will be Owl
2:00 pm Landscaping with Native Plants
Landscaping with Native Plants
May 4 @ 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm
Want to spend less time cutting grass and more time enjoying the beautiful plants around your home? This workshop introduces a variety of hardy native plants to attract wildlife and beautify your yard.
8:00 am Birds and Breakfast
Birds and Breakfast
May 11 @ 8:00 am – 10:00 am
The Macphail Homestead will be open at 7am to serve a free “early bird” breakfast. Join other birders beside the fireplace in the Great Room for at hot beverage and breakfast treats to start your
10:00 am Pruning Trees and Shrubs
Pruning Trees and Shrubs
May 18 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Participants will practice pruning on a variety of plants in the nursery, arboretum and woodlands. Please bring along any of your favourite pruning tools. Workshop will include a slide show and demonstration of proper pruning
10:00 am Creating and Maintaining Hedgero...
Creating and Maintaining Hedgero...
May 25 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am
This workshop will look at on creating diverse, beautiful and functional hedgerows and windbreaks using a variety of native plants. Participants will learn about which plants are best, spacing, planting and maintenance.

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