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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Aegolius acadicus ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: STRIGIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A tiny owl with a catlike face, oversized head, and bright yellow eyes, the Northern Saw-whet Owl is practically bursting with attitude. Where mice and other small mammals are concerned this fierce, silent owl is anything but cute. One of the most common owls in forests across northern North America (and across the U.S. in winter), saw-whets are highly nocturnal and seldom seen. Their high-pitched too-too-too call is a common evening sound in evergreen mountain forests from January through May.

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Keys to identification Help

Owls
Owls
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    These are very small owls with large, rounded heads that lack ear tufts.

  • Color Pattern

    Northern Saw-whet Owls are mottled brown birds with a whitish facial disk and white-spotted head. Their eyes are yellow. Juveniles are dark brown with creamy yellow breast and belly.

  • Behavior

    They are nocturnal and hard to see, but they have a shrill, penetrating call that they give many times in succession. During daylight they roost in dense vegetation, typically just above eye level and near the trunk in evergreen trees.

  • Habitat

    Northern Saw-whet Owls are forest birds. They breed in extensive forests across northern North America, also sometimes using more open habitats such as the shrubsteppe of the West as long as there are nest sites available. They winter in dense forests across the central and southern U.S.

Range Map Help

Northern Saw-whet Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Northern Saw-whet Owl

    Adult
    • Very small owl with large, rounded head
    • Pale, buffy facial disc
    • Thin, white streaks on forehead, scattered white spots on back
    • Blurry brown streaks on belly
    • © Amanda Guercio, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, November 2011
  • Adult

    Northern Saw-whet Owl

    Adult
    • Small, compact owl
    • Usually roosts in very dense cover
    • Large head with pale facial disc
    • Thick, brown streaks on belly, sporadic white spots on brown back
    • © Cameron Rognan, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, February 2009
  • Juvenile

    Northern Saw-whet Owl

    Juvenile
    • Very round and compact
    • Juvenile distinctive with very dark head and contrasting white triangle on forehead
    • Juvenile also shows rich buffy underparts
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Point Lobos State National Reserve, Carmel, California, May 2010
  • Adult

    Northern Saw-whet Owl

    Adult
    • Very small and compact
    • Large eyes with orange/yellow irises
    • Blurry brown streaks on belly
    • Pale facial disc on large, rounded head
    • © Joey Herron, November 2010

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Boreal Owl

    Adult
    • Larger and longer-tailed than Northern Saw-whet Owl
    • Darker overall with "salt and pepper" flecks and broken black frame encircling face
    • More heavily and evenly spotted with white on back
    • Paler bill
    • © Laura Erickson, Minnesota
  • Adult (brown-morph)

    Eastern Screech-Owl

    Adult (brown-morph)
    • Slightly larger and more elongated than Northern Saw-whet Owl
    • Smaller head with short "ear" tufts
    • Colder gray overall
    • Heavily patterned below
    • © Greg Page, Katy Prairie, Texas, November 2010
  • Adult

    Western Screech-Owl

    Adult
    • Slightly larger and more elongated than Northern Saw-whet Owl
    • Colder silvery gray overall
    • Head less rounded with narrower facial disc, and short "ear" tufts
    • Dense, cross-hatch pattern on underparts
    • © Bryant Olsen, Arizona, March 2011
  • Adult

    Barred Owl

    Adult
    • Much larger and heavier than Northern Saw-whet Owl
    • Smaller, black eyes
    • Crisp vertical streaks below, dense white-and-brown mottling above
    • Facial disc does not contrast with rest of head
    • © Grant Hickey, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, March 2011

Similar Species

The other common small owls in North America are the Eastern Screech-Owl and Western Screech-Owl. These two species have distinct ear tufts, while the Northern Saw-whet Owl’s head is smoothly rounded. Screech-owls have longer, more complex calls than the saw-whet’s single repeated note. Barred Owls are much larger than saw-whets (nearly three times their size), and they have brown eyes and darker faces. Northern Pygmy-Owls of the West are active during the day. They are slightly smaller and more slender than saw-whets, with a pale bill and a much longer, banded tail. Boreal Owls live only in northern North America and the high elevations of the West. They have a more clearly defined white facial disk with a sharp black border, a pale bill, and dark markings through the eyes. Their call is lower and much faster than the Northern Saw-whet Owl’s call.

Backyard Tips

If you live on an extensively wooded lot within the Northern Saw-whet Owl’s breeding range, consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

It’s hard to see a Northern Saw-whet Owl, but you may hear them on quiet nights from January to May in forests of northern and western North America. Listen for a sharp, high, repeated too-too-too call. During the day these small, hard-to-find owls roost silently in dense conifers. Your best chance of seeing them is to pay attention to small songbirds—if they discover a roosting saw-whet, they’re likely to kick up a racket, calling and flying at the owl until it moves one.