It’s a Hard-Knock Life

Juvenile Northern Saw-whet OwlsThere isn’t much else in the world that’s cuter than a baby Northern Saw-whet Owl. I should know; I handled dozens of them over the course of my doctorate research. Between their huge, blue, soulful eyes and the round, fluffy, ewok-like body, they’re guaranteed to evoke an ‘aww’ out of even the hardest-boiled egg of a person.

Still, most people will never have the opportunity to see one, at least not in their juvenile plumage. They’re notoriously hard to find.  Northern Saw-whet Owls nest in old tree cavities, moving into empty woodpecker holes and other crevasses in rotted out trunks. To study them more closely, researchers put up nest boxes in the hopes of coaxing them into more accessible real estate. It’s a lot easier to climb a ten-foot ladder up to a nest box than to have to figure out a way to get 25 feet up into a poplar or worse, a hydro pole.

Even once they’re out of the nest, they’re difficult to spot. Being not much bigger than a coffee mug full-grown, these little owls rely on camouflage to stay safe in the forests and woodlots where they make their home.  Their first line of defence when threatened is to go stock still against a tree trunk or in a mess of branches. It’s a very effective manoeuvre.  Adult saw-whets have stripes of brown and white on their breast feathers and spots on their heads that break-up their profile, helping them melt into the shadows. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tracked a radio-tagged bird to their daytime roost and still couldn’t spot the little guy among the leaves. The brilliant white V on the forehead of juvenile birds is to help parents find their mouths in the dark of a nest cavity. Still, in daylight, this natural beacon manages to blend into the dappled sunlight on the foliage.

Adult Male Northern Saw-whet Owl

Adult male Northern Saw-whet Owl blending into the background.

So, any time I get to spend with these little guys is a treat, one that I never take for granted. It’s always such a pleasure to get to observe their individual personalities up close.

Don’t let their size and adorable expressions fool you. These are tough little birds. They have to be. Life for a Northern Saw-whet Owl is hard from day one. Females lay their eggs two days apart, but start incubating before they’ve completed the clutch. As a result, you end up with a nest full of young where the oldest may have a ten day head start on life over the youngest. In years where the small mammal population is high, the provisioning males can make their nightly quota of about seven or more prey items a night, making it possible for all the young to make it out of the nest. However, in years where food is scarce, that age difference suddenly comes into sharp relief and it’s not uncommon to find only one or two of the oldest nestlings surviving out of a clutch of 4-6.

Even if they make it out of the nest, life doesn’t get much easier. After a month crammed into the nest hole with mom and all their siblings, you’d think these newly-fledged saw-whets would want to move on and take advantage of their new-found freedom as quickly as possible.  However, despite having fully-feathered wings by the time they leave the nest (unusual for owls), juveniles tend to hang around the homestead for another month or so. They spend their days tucked away in the shadows in nearby trees and their nights calling insistently for food deliveries from their already beleaguered father, their mother having taken off around the time the oldest hit 21 days for a much-needed break.  During this post-fleding period, young saw-whets practice flying and refine their hunting skills.

Eventually, it’s time for them to strike out on their own into the great unknown. It’s actually a great unknown for us researchers as well. Despite a number of long-term banding programs for the species all over North America, we still don’t have a very good handle on saw-whet owl movements outside of the breeding season.

So every year, my colleagues across the country and I will keep adding new nest boxes and checking the ones we have, spending as much time as we can peering into the lives of these adorable and enigmatic owls in the hopes that one day we might unravel a few more of their mysteries.

* If you would like to entice owls to your backyard, let me know, and I’ll send you the plans for building a nestbox.

12 thoughts on “It’s a Hard-Knock Life

  1. We have a lot of barred and long-eared owls in our area. I hear their distinctive calls at dusk and early in the morning. They are not as secretive as the saw-whets and I’ve been lucky enough to actually see both of them in the daylight. Also saw a barn owl once sitting on a fence post on the side of the road. Magnificent creatures!

  2. I’m jealous, Jo Ann. We have both Barreds and Long-eareds, but I don’t get to see them nearly as often as I’d like. I only recorded my first Barred Owl in the Grindstone area around my cottage last fall. He was calling again this spring, but I’m not sure he ever found a mate.

    Saw-whets may be hard to see, but you hear them often enough. The thing is, most people don’t realize that’s what they’re hearing. They sound like a truck backing up, a repetitive whistle that just keeps going and going in the darkness.

    We don’t have Barn Owls at all, unfortunately. They don’t range this far north. Fascinating critters, though. They belong to a completely different family than the rest of the North American owls. Tyto owls, like the barn owl, are much more common in places like Australia.

    Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  3. Ewoks is right. They are sooo cute.

    I’ve seldom seen any owls in the wild. What a thrill to be able to see these guys up close and person.

  4. Thanks, Sybil. I do realize how lucky I am to have been able to work with these guys. Every moment I spend with them is a gift. Still, it’s a good thing they’re cute, because they’re a little smelly… and messy 🙂

  5. Marvellous post, as usual, Heather. It brings me great joy to stop by and learn about so many species, habitats and types of behaviour from you. Owls, for the most part, have remained extremely elusive for me over my years of watching birds, and reading about them brings nearly as much of a thrill as actually seeing one. If I ever make it up to your neck of the woods, I would love the opportunity to be taken on an owl expedition by you!


    • Thanks, Julian. I think owls are a group of species that are elusive for most people; they’re secretive, mostly nocturnal and as such, surrounded by a lot of mystery. That may be why they’re so popular in stories and legends. That, coupled with their forward-facing eyes, which give them almost human expressions, make for a powerful allure.

      For years, I was the opposite of most birders. I would be up around 9:30 am and work till usually 2 in the morning. Actually, I’m still mostly clock-shifted in that direction, but it’s what’s needed to spend quality time with owls. I would be more than happy to take you owling sometime, should you ever end up in my neck of the woods 🙂

  6. I saw a saw-whet owl a few years ago north of here, on a trail by my cabin. It was on a low branch in front of me and I stood looking at it for some time – it began bobbing up and down, which I mistook for a friendly gesture. At any rate, I felt that we shared a moment! I didn’t realize that I was so lucky in actually laying eyes on one until reading your post. I just love your photos and descriptions.

    • What an awesome experience, Cait! I actually have only ever seen one saw-whet in the wild that wasn’t part of my research. I’ve seen and handled hundreds over the course of my work; but we managed to spot one on an owl prowl on Hecla Is a few years ago. I picked a random spot to stop and after getting out of the car, I glanced around the area. There, silhouetted in a dogwood was a saw-whet that easily could’ve been mistaken for a leaf. It was so exciting. I’m glad you got to experience that first-hand.

  7. Stopped back for a second read because I think I may have heard a saw-whet the other night and am surprised to discover I didn’t leave a comment. You probably sent me off on an internet tour after reading and I forgot to come back and comment. That happens a lot – I get easily side-tracked when I read something that inspires me…

    Anyway…I love the art and the post and I especially like your comparison of their call to a back-up beeper. I’m going to try to remember that. Hopefully I won’t find myself hearing it and thinking, “I read about that call, now what was it?”, which means I really need to hear it this summer so I don’t have time to forget. Or am I as likely to hear it in the winter? I know you said that researchers don’t know a lot about them, but is there a chance that they stick around in the same territory in the winter?

    • Thanks, Cindy. I’m happy to know that my blog can inspire you to go exploring elsewhere for information and inspiration. I can relate to your tendency to be easily distracted (squirrel!).

      I’m glad you love the art. This one took a while to get it the way I wanted it. Those darned saw-whets never were especially cooperative 🙂

      As for the call, you likely won’t hear it much in the summer, though I was going over my records for Grindstone the other day and did have some reports of calls in August, so it’s not impossible. The males usually call anywhere between March and June to announce territories and attract mates.

      We know a lot about many aspects of their biology, but the details of post-fledging behaviour was a bit of a new discovery for me and they’re still trying to sort out where they go in the winter. Saw-whets do migrate, but the destinations are still a little unsure last I checked. There is some speculation that males may stick around over the winter in Alberta (and likely Manitoba) if they’ve had a productive year. I did catch a couple of males in the same spot in two years over the course of my field work, but I don’t know if they’d stayed or just returned. Some have been seen (usually emaciated and sometimes dead) in the winter. So, all this is to tell you to listen for the call in the very early spring. It’s a repeated whistle that once you hear it, will stick with you. Happy owling!

  8. Hi there. Just reading your great posting regarding the Northern Saw-Whet Owl. They certainly are a cute little bird. I live in Toronto, Ontario, and this past Friday, my wife and I came upon an adult Saw-Whet Owl out in the bush. This was the first time as birders that we had ever seen a Saw-Whet Owl. Fortunately, we had our camera with us and got some good pictures and video. We have posted them for anyone interested at:

    • Hi Jean and Bob! Thanks for sharing your experience. You’re extremely lucky to have found the little guy. I worked intensively with saw-whets for 4 years, putting transmitters on them and following them around. Even with a transmitter beeping away, telling me it’s the tree right in front of me, I sometimes had a hard time spotting them. They’re experts at camouflage and the behaviour your observed with your little guy is a perfect example. He probably wasn’t completely undisturbed by your presence, but they’re first instinct is to freeze and stay frozen unless they absolutely have to move. I used to catch them by slipping a noose over their heads from 10 feet below and they would often sit still till it was all the way over.

      Your little guy likely realized they you weren’t a threat and was trying to catch up on his sleep. I’m glad you had a chance to see him ‘wake up’ at dusk. They become almost completely different birds. You have some excellent pictures and I thank you for stopping by to share them.

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