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Northern Saw-whet Owl


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.


Song a series of whistled toots.


  • Whine-like call
  • Fall vocalizations
  • Winter vocalizations
  • Male alarm call
  • Unknown call
  • Bill snap and twittering
  • Food deliveries at a nest
  • Courtesy of Macaulay Library
    © Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Northern Saw-whet Owls have a distinctive too-too-too call, an insistent series of whistled notes on roughly the same pitch, given at a rate of about 2 notes per second. Males calling to advertise their territory can be heard up to half a mile away. Other males respond with a softer, faster, lower version of the call. Females also use a version of the call during courtship. Saw-whets additionally give whines, guttural sounds, high tssst calls, squeaks, and high-pitched barks.

Other Sounds

Saw-whets snap their bills when captured or approached closely.

Search the Macaulay Library online archive for more sounds and videos

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.

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