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I Met a Northern Saw-Whet Owl Today!

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

This beautiful bird was quite pleasant!

A Northern Saw-Whet Owl perched near a bird feeder in the Northern Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Northern Saw-Whet Owl (media by JC)

It is remarkable to come across a bird you never knew existed. We had the fortune of spotting a Northern Saw-Whet Owl near our bird feeder recently. I was quick to snap some pictures and film some videos as I knew I had to find out what type of owl this was. Everyone was quick to point out just how small it was.

The “Saw-whet portion of the name draws comparisons with the similar vocalizations the owl makes when compared to the whetting (or sharpening) of a saw’s blade. Now I, for one, never associated it’s “tooting” for the sharpening of a saw blade, probably for my lack of sharpening saw blades. I can tell you from personal experience this bird makes a high-pitched tooting sound.​

The female owl is generally larger and heavier than males at around 3.5oz. The male comes in at about 2.6oz, with both owls not exceeding 8.5 inches in height.

For the longest time, the Saw-Whet was thought to be pretty rare. The fact they are both nocturnal and diminutive in size contributes to our inability to see them more commonly. We were quite lucky to see this fine specimen.

The Saw-Whet feasts mainly on deer mice along with voles. They can also be found eating smaller birds and insects if the mood hits them right. It was intriguing to find out some of their biggest predators are larger owls and raptors. They also fight and compete for nesting sites with squirrels and starlings. The squirrels and starlings will plunder the nests and kill the baby owls (also known as owlets). I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised as this little bird is relatively small. Their body mass is on par with that of a Blue Jay, after all.

Adding to the natural predators of these small owls is that of deforestation and global warming. The dense forests these birds rely on our becoming less common as logging and thinning of these ecosystems is hurting the Saw-Whets populations. I thank my lucky stars I was able to see this little beauty.

Motion video captured of a Northern Saw-Whet Owl in Northern Michigan.
Video of Northern Saw-Whet Owl (media by JC)

• There is an endemic, non-migratory subspecies of the saw-whet owl that lives on Haida Gwaii, an island off of British Columbia (A. a. brooksi), that feeds on intertidal invertebrates.

• There is some banding evidence that male saw-whets may be less migratory than females.

• Older saw-whet siblings are known to assist in the feeding of younger siblings after the mother leaves the nest, when the nestlings are about 18 days old.

• The oldest wild Northern saw-whet ever recorded was at least 9 years and 5 months old.

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