What is a Saw Whet Owl?

Debra Durkee
Debra Durkee

The saw whet owl is a small North American owl; in the summer months it can be found well north into Canada before it moves south into the United States for the winter. Its name is reminiscent of its distinctive call, which it only produces during mating season.

Extremely small, stocky, and compact, adults are typically between 7 and 8 inches (about 18 to 21 cm) in length. Their wingspan is large for such a small owl, and can reach from 16.5 to almost 19 inches (about 42 to 48 cm). Feathers of the male and female are brown and white, with a gray tint to the head. Young owls lack the speckled appearance, and are solid brown on the back and cream colored on the front. The saw whet owl has a distinctly soft and fluffy appearance.

Natural habitats include forests of all types and elevations, although these owls seem to prefer the edges of forests. In the colder, winter months, they typically spend the day roosting in heavily forested areas, preferably coniferous trees, then hunt during the night, when there is prey available. They often compete with other types of birds for nesting sites, and are adaptable enough to nest in man-made nesting boxes.

The saw whet owl feeds mainly on mice, shrews, and other small mammals. Unlike other owls, it cannot swallow its prey whole and must tear it apart in order to eat. Its hunting method is to perch in low tree branches and to simply sit and wait until prey comes into range before swooping down to catch it. During the summer and fall, it has been known to catch extra prey in preparation for the coming winter. These mice are then stashed in areas like holes in trees and left for months when the hunting is sparse.

Owls nest in the cavities of trees, which are chosen by the male and inhabited by the female after a spring courtship period. Between three and seven eggs are hatched by the female, while the male hunts for them both and protects the nest. Chicks begin to leave the nest when they are about a month old, and are mature at around nine months old. Saw whet owl adults, juveniles and chicks alike, are in danger of becoming a meal for larger birds.

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