Living Bird Magazine
Northern Saw-whet OwlAegolius acadicus
- ORDER: Strigiformes
- FAMILY: Strigidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Mochuelo Cabezón (Spanish)
- Petite Nyctale (French)
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.
- Cool Facts
- The Northern Saw-whet Owl may have been named for giving a call that sounds like a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone, but there is no consensus as to which of its several calls gave rise to the name.
- The main prey items of the Northern Saw-whet Owl are mice, and especially deer mice of the genus Peromyscus. Saw-whets usually eat adult mice in pieces, over the course of two meals.
- The female Northern Saw-whet Owl does all of the incubation and brooding, while the male does the hunting. When the youngest nestling is about 18 days old, the female leaves the nest to roost elsewhere. The male continues bringing food, which the older nestlings may help feed to their younger siblings.
- The female saw-whet keeps the nest very clean, but a mess starts to accumulate when she leaves. By the time the young owls leave the nest, 10 days to 2 weeks later, the nest cavity has a thick layer of feces, pellets, and rotting prey parts.
- Migration in saw-whets has historically been poorly understood, because of their nocturnal, reclusive behavior. In the 1990s researchers began Project Owlnet, a collaboration that now consists of more than 100 owl migration banding sites. Researchers use the too-too-too call to lure owls in to mist nets, and band thousands of saw-whets every fall.
- Migrating Northern Saw-whet Owls can cross the Great Lakes or other large bodies of water. In October of 1999, one landed on a fishing vessel 70 miles from shore in the Atlantic Ocean near Montauk, New York.
- The oldest Northern Saw-whet Owl on record was at least 9 years, 5 months old when it was captured and released by a Minnesota bird bander in 2007. It was originally banded in Ontario in 1999.