One of the smallest owl species of North America, the northern saw-whet owl is common and widespread across coniferous and mixed species forests of Canada and the United States. However, its nocturnal habits and secretive behavior means that sightings remain rare and the species is not particularly well-studied.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl looking out from the nest cavity
Northern Saw-whet Owl hiding in the trees
Portrait of a Northern Saw-whet Owl
17cm to 22cm
42cm to 56.3cm
54g to 151g
Northern saw-whet owls have round brown heads, streaked with white. The facial disk is white between the eyes, forming a Y-shape, and streaked with reddish-brown and white stripes. The forehead is brown, speckled with white, and the back, wings, and tail are reddish-brown, dotted with white markings.
Their underparts are pale white, heavily patterned with rufous streaks, and the legs are covered in dense white feathers to the toes. Eyes are yellow, and the short hooked bill is black..
Female northern saw-whet owls are alike in coloring to males but can be easily told apart due to the considerable size difference between much larger females and much smaller males.
Juvenile northern saw-whet owls have darker brown upperparts and their breast and belly are rust-colored and unmarked. Their faces are plain brown with white patches above and between the eyes and narrow white mustache stripes.
Northern Saw-whet Owl perching on a broken branch
One of North America’s smallest owls, the northern saw-whet owl is smaller than the similar boreal owl but marginally bigger than the tiny northern pygmy owl. Despite males and females being identical in plumage, size offers a clear indication of a northern saw-whet owl’s sex, with females around 25 percent larger than males.
Northern Saw-whet Owl perching on a tree stump
A single-note ‘too-too-too’ whistle can be heard by northern saw-whet owls stating a claim to a territory or as a warning to intruders and is a common sound across woodlands on spring evenings. Whines, barks, and high-pitched ‘tssst’ calls are also heard. Bill snapping is also heard as an alarm call when threatened.
Northern Saw-whet Owl sounding out an alarm call
Deer mice and white-footed mice are the chief prey of northern saw-whet owls, with house mice, harvest mice, and montane voles are also important. Other mammals occasionally hunted include bats, pocket gophers, squirrels, and chipmunks. Northern saw-whet owls also feed on birds as well as large beetles and grasshoppers.
Male northern saw-whet owls bring prey items to the nest, which are then ripped up into smaller chunks by the female and fed to the young. Deer mice and small voles are among the initial prey offered to nestlings, and as they grow, they are able to manage larger-sized items.
Northern Saw-whet Owlets waiting for food at the nest hole
Northern saw-whet owls inhabit dense coniferous forests and mixed species woodlands and are also found in wooded swamps and forested peatlands with spruce-tamarack bogs. Mixed woodlands are popular, with conifers offering ideal sheltered roosting spots and deciduous trees providing perches for foraging and cavities for nesting.
Northern saw-whet owls breed in dense forests and woodlands of western and northeastern North America, from southern Alaska, across the southernmost regions of Canada. The mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina represent the southern limit of that range.
In winter, populations breeding in the northernmost regions migrate southward across much of the northern and central United States but remain absent from the extreme southeast and most of Texas.
Permanent year-round populations are present along the east and west coasts of Canada and the United States, reaching as far south as central Mexico.
The highest number of northern saw-whet owls are found in regions with dense coniferous forests. In spring and fall, significant numbers are frequently reported in the Great Lakes area. The states with the highest recorded concentrations include Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Population estimates are difficult for northern saw-whet owls because their migration patterns are irregular and concentrations shift naturally depending on the availability of prey. The overall population is thought to be between 100,000 and 2 million individuals.
Northern saw-whet owls are relatively secretive and hard to spot because of their tiny size, nocturnal behavior, and chosen habitats in dense forests. Despite being widespread and common across forests of North America, sightings are highly prized, and the giveaway ‘too-too-too’ call is probably the best indicator that northern saw-whet owls are nearby.
Northern Saw-whet Owl perched on a branch
Being a highly nocturnal species with a preference for dense, undisturbed forest habitats, sightings of northern saw-whet owls are never guaranteed and are notoriously challenging.
Sites that offer ideal habitats and a number of regular reports include Acadia National Park in Maine, which has a sizable breeding population, with sightings increasing during the migration period. Minnesota’s forests offer northern saw-whet owls suitable year-round habitats, and sightings are frequently recorded at Voyageurs National Park, Isle Royale National Park, and the Superior National Forest, Little Suamico at Stevens Point in Wisconsin is another known spot with increased chances of a sighting.
Throughout much of southern Canada, northern saw-whet owls are year-round residents, breeding from the southern corner of Alaska southwards across to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the east. One location that regularly reports sightings is the protected forest landscape of Macphail Woods on Prince Edward Island.
A subspecies of the northern saw-whet owl, Aegolius acadicus brooksi, is only found on British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii archipelago, and has distinctive golden coloring on its face and breast, rather than white.
Northern Saw-whet Owl in forest habitat
An average lifespan for northern saw-whet owls is around 7 years, although individuals that have survived for much longer have been identified through banding programmes, including one that reached 10 years and 4 months.
In captivity, northern saw-whet owls have lived for up to 16 years. Breeding is thought to occur for the first time at one year old.
Being predators themselves does not make northern saw-whet owls immune from being preyed on themselves, and they are regularly targeted by larger raptors, including great horned owls, eastern screech owls, spotted owls, Cooper’s hawks, peregrine falcons, and broad-winged hawks. Nest predators include red squirrels.
Canada’s Migratory Birds Convention Act and the United States Migratory Bird Treaty Act both prohibit the capture, trade, and harm of northern saw-whet owls and their eggs and young.
Across their entire range, northern saw-whet owls are rated as a species of least concern, although in some regions, including parts of North Carolina, there are more immediate concerns over their future due to habitat loss and declining local populations.
Northern Saw-whet Owl sitting in an evergreen tree
Northern saw-whet owls are secondary cavity nesters and make use of nest chambers that have been drilled out and previously used by other species, including pileated woodpeckers and northern flickers. Nest boxes may also be used if available.
Ahead of the breeding season, males begin calling to advertise for mates from late January onwards. The earliest eggs are laid in Canadian breeding grounds in late February, with Californian populations being the latest to lay, with clutches there complete in May or June.
Incubation takes between 27 and 29 days, with the female brooding the eggs alone and food brought to the nest by her mate, barely leaving the eggs unattended. A single brood is raised in a typical year, although if an initial clutch fails, a replacement brood may be attempted.
Northern saw-whet owls lay between 4 and 7 smooth white eggs in a typical clutch. Eggs measure 30 mm by 25 mm (1.2 in by 1 in).
No evidence exists of northern saw-whet owls’ pair bonds lasting for longer than one season, and in some cases, particularly in years with abundant prey and nest sites, females may leave their original mate to raise young after hatching to raise a second brood with a different mate.
Northern Saw-whet Owl at nest cavity
Aggressive interactions when competing for nest cavities are common, with northern saw-whet owls not always coming out on top. They are generally a docile species but may become aggravated if their nest site is disturbed.
Northern saw-whet owls are nocturnal, hunting at night and roosting in dense vegetation during the day. Roosting spots are chosen in tall trees, around 3.5 m (11.4 ft) above the ground, and around 70 cm (28 in) from the trunk, with conifers seeming to be preferred trees for daytime roosting.
Northern Saw-whet Owl roosting on a branch in a tall tree
In eastern and western regions of North America, populations of northern saw-whet owls are sedentary, remaining in the same territories all year round.
Towards the interior of the continent, and at the northern limit of their range across central-southern Canada, movement south begins once breeding is complete. Relatively short-distance migrations take place from higher elevations to lower-lying, milder landscapes in the central US.
Northern saw-whet owls are widespread across the United States both as resident birds and in parts of the central south as winter visitors only. Only the states furthest to the southeast and south do not have an established presence of the species.
Northern Saw-whet Owl perching on a branch during the fall
Due to their elusive nature, northern saw-whet owls are sometimes seen as a symbol of mystery and magic. They are also associated with wisdom, intuition, and the ability to see through mistruths and deception.
The Northern saw-whet owl's name comes from its "skiew" alarm call, which is said to sound like the whetting - or sharpening - of a saw blade.
Arguably the world’s most instantly recognizable owl species (thanks possibly to the “celebrity” of Hedwig in the Harry Potter series), the snowy owl is a powerful and fearsome presence on Arctic tundra landscapes. It preys on lemmings and voles and will also successfully chase and capture much larger mammals and birds.
Despite being one of North America’s tiniest owls, the northern pygmy-owl has a reputation as being one of the most bloodthirsty, fearlessly hunting and carrying off prey up to three times its own size.
Great Horned Owl
An unmistakable species, the great horned owl is one of North America’s largest and heaviest owls, with clearly visible ear tufts on each side of the head. They are also among the most common and widespread owl species in much of the Americas, although sightings are rather rare due to their nocturnal lifestyle.
A common and widespread owl species across the eastern United States, the eastern screech-owl has adapted to survive in a diverse range of habitats, in both suburban neighborhoods and rural forested landscapes. Seemingly unfazed by human presence (at a distance), eastern screech owls readily roost in nest boxes hung in backyards.
Western screech-owls are a relatively widespread and abundant species in the western regions of North America, found in a range of habitat types from woodlands and suburban parks and gardens with mature tree cover to the arid mesquite landscapes of the Sonoran Desert.
One of North America’s tiniest owl species, flammulated owls are named for the flame-like markings that are present on their faces, back, wings and underparts. Their plumage allows them to blend into their forest habitats and remain elusive and rarely seen.
A small woodland owl native to eastern and south Asia, on two recorded occasions oriental scops-owls have strayed as far as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as vagrant visitors. These long-distance detours are highly unusual and the species is far more likely to be spotted in forested regions of east China.
Great Gray Owl
Unmistakable due to their sheer size, great gray owls are the largest North American owls in terms of size but not the heaviest. This honor goes to the snowy owl, which is on average at least 10 cm shorter in length and more than 1 kg heavier.
Unique among North America’s birds, burrowing owls are the only species on the continent that nest and roost below the ground. Usually, an abandoned prairie dog burrow is used, but occasionally they will excavate their own tunnel that extends deep into the soil.
A small owl, resident in northern taiga landscapes, boreal owls are widespread but are rarely seen due to their favored habitats of dense coniferous and mixed forests, their secretive behavior and their nocturnal hunting habits.
Originally confined to forests and uplands in eastern North America, the barred owl has extended its range into the Pacific Northwest in recent decades and is now widespread across southern Canada. Their well-known ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call can be heard resounding through woodlands in early spring.
North America’s smallest owl species, elf owls are widespread across the desert landscapes of the US-Mexico borders. Cavities in saguaro cacti are one of their favorite nesting spots, although they are also likely to use abandoned woodpecker hollows in trees, fence posts and utility poles in more urban settings.
Spotted owls are a species of intense conservation concern across North America. Numbers have declined steeply since the increase in logging activities across the Pacific Northwest from the 1970s onwards. Populations have now reached worryingly low levels, with only an estimated 6000 to 15,000 individuals believed to remain in the wild.
The most widespread pygmy-owl species in South America, ferruginous pygmy-owls are tiny reddish-brown owls roughly the same size as an eastern bluebird. Thriving in both desert landscapes of the extreme southern US and in tropical rainforests of South America, they are a mostly diurnal species, hunting for insects and lizards between dawn and dusk.
Northern Hawk Owl
Found in northern regions of North America, northeastern Europe and Siberia, northern hawk owls are unusual among owls for being active during the day rather than the night. The species is also known for its hawklike behavior, flight and body shape.
Mottled owls are native to Central America and much of northern South America. Barely any records exist of the species within the United States although they are present in various regions of Mexico. A nocturnal hunter with a varied diet, the mottled owl preys on small rodents, birds, insects and small reptiles, scanning the forest floor from a perch, waiting for an opportunity to swoop.
A small, noisy owl that thrives in montane forests from Arizona to Nicaragua, the whiskered screech-owl is named for the tufted bristles on its face. A highly nocturnal bird, the first alert to the presence of a whiskered screech-owl is usually hearing its distinctive trilled song resounding through moonlit woodlands.
One of the world’s least-documented owl species, the stygian owl has a dark plumage and is found in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Vagrant visitors have occasionally been recorded in Texas and Florida, but otherwise it is not usually spotted in much of North America.
The Eurasian Scops Owl is one of the smaller members of the Strigidae family of owls being smaller even than the Little Owl. It is one of the few European owls that leaves its breeding grounds and migrates south during the winter.
The Tawny Owl is a carnivorous night hunter common throughout Europe and western Asia with pockets found within the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It shouldn’t be confused with the Tawny Fish-owl of East Asia, the Tawny-bellied Screech owl of South America nor the Tawny-browed owl found on the eastern side of South America. The tawny owl is also occasionally referred to as the Brown Owl.
Unlike most owls, this medium sized bird is often seen hunting during daylight hours, mainly around dawn and dusk and particularly across farmland and in grassland, marsh and moorland areas.
As well as its distinctive ear tufts, perhaps the most striking feature of a long-eared owl are its piercing bright orange eyes. However, as the UKs most nocturnal owl species, its rare that they are out in daylight hours, so itd be a really rare event to see one with your own eyes.
The Little Owl is the UK’s smallest bird of prey and a fascinating species to observe. Introduced over a century ago, these newcomers from the European mainland have become a regular sighting in farmland across much of England.
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