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Northern Saw whet Owl
"A wise old owl lived in an oak;
The more he saw the less he spoke
Edward Hersey Richards

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Twitter the Saw Whet Owl

Twitter's nest was attacked by crows.

Northern Saw Whet Owl

Aegolius acadicus
Order: Strigiformes
Family: Strigidae
Genus: Aegolius

Standing only 6.7-8.6in (17-21.9cm) tall and weighing only 2.6-3.9oz (75-110g), many people are surprised to find out that adult northern saw-whet owls are fully-grown.  Yet they do not even hold the record for the world’s smallest owl.  That feat goes to the Elf Owl, which can be as short as 5.1in (13cm). However, these owls are found in the southwestern United States and Mexico, so the Saw-whet is the smallest owl that can be seen within the Adirondack Park.

Saw-whet owls are strictly nocturnal but will begin hunting at late dusk and can continue into dawn.  Their diet is mainly composed of small mammals including deer mice, shrews, and voles. When plentiful, they will kill mice in excess and cache food in safe places.  During winter they will brood frozen carcasses in order to thaw them.  Occasionally, they will take other prey including bats, small birds, frogs, and even larger birds such as pigeons.  With larger owls, hawks, and pine martens preying on Saw-whet owls they have a relatively high mortality rate in the wild but in captivity can live for more than 10 years.

Breeding season occurs in March through May when the males will find old woodpecker cavities (preferably from Northern Flickers) and turn them into nesting cavities.  Most of the time these cavities are in dead standing trees and they have to compete with squirrels, starlings, and other owls for nesting locations.  Therefore, it can be important to leave dead trees when managing forest properties, as the owls can readily adapt to nest boxes.  Once a male attracts a female he will fly in circles and then lead her to the nest site where he will bob and shuffle towards her, often times offering her a mouse.  The female lays clutches of 3-7 eggs and does all incubation while male defends the nest and brings food.

Saw-whet owls are often hard to find in the wild because they are small, well camouflaged, and silent throughout most of the year. It is most likely to hear them during their breeding season when they use courtship and territorial calls.  When they are found, many people mistake saw-whets for being tame because they do not fly away readily.  Actually, this occurs as a result of their best defense mechanism: remaining still and depending on their camouflaged feathers to hide them from predators, an act some people affectionately call “playing pinecone.”

Our educational Saw-whet Owl, Twitter, was brought to a rehabilitator in Salt Lake City, Utah after American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) attacked her nest, killing her parents and all but one of her siblings. Crows are omnivorous and very opportunistic feeders. They eat everything from seeds and berries to worms, fish, and mice. They are also a frequent nest predator, eating the eggs and nestlings of many bird species.  While nest predation is an unfortunate natural phenomenon, some argue that it is not without human influence.  Crows are very adaptable. Their population has increased as they have gladly taken advantage of well-groomed areas such as farmland and suburban areas, especially when they have access to human garbage.  Land development may be favorable for crows, which thrive under fragmented forest conditions, but it is not favorable for other species.  The saw-whet relies on forest cover as a defense against attacking crows (which tend to avoid large expanses of unbroken forest) and when it is eliminated, they become more susceptible to predation.

Jonas Borkholder

Saw whet owls by Dan Alempijevic.
Saw whet owls, by Dan Alempijevic, enjoying some mice.
Twitter the Saw Whet Owl


Photos by Deb & Kevin MacKenzie

Saw whet owl by Brenda Dadds Woodward

Photo by Brenda Dadds Woodward

Jonas and Twitter meet the class.
Twitter and Jonas meet the class.
Saw Whet Owl Range
Saw Whet Owl Range
shamelessly pilfered from the Owl Pages

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