By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education
He came out on his porch, and right on the railing was an owl – a saw-whet owl. The owl was startled, and flew to a nearby tree, where a he watched it for a while at his house. I listened to this story at the Museum, wishing I could have seen this myself as the saw-whet is a bird that continues to be on my must-see life list. I have not yet had the fortune to observe one, but think they are spectacular birds.
How do we identify a saw-whet owl? These owls are only seven to eight inches tall, have a white face outlined in brown and white, with yellow eyes but no ear tufts. Their underparts are white and streaked with brown. They have an asymmetrical skull that makes their head sometimes appear distorted.
Behavior or location can also help with identification of this bird. We can best find the northern saw-whet owl in deciduous and coniferous forests that have thicker understory or shrubs. Other preferred habitat includes areas with older deciduous trees that have existing woodpecker cavities, and forests near wetland habitat. During the day saw-whets roost in tree cover close to the ground. Saw-whet owls tend to shuffle their feet when sitting, and look larger when in flight because of their broad wings. When threatened, they stretch their body out to look like a branch, sometimes bringing a wing around to the front of their bodies. They also tend to stay in one place rather than flying away when scared, causing people to think they are tame. We can recognize their call, which occurs mostly between March and May and sounds like a repeated, whistle-like “hoop” that can last for hours without a break. Their name comes from their alarm call that sounds like the whetting of a saw.
Saw-whet owls hunt at dusk and dawn, waiting until they spy prey, then swooping down to catch them from low hunting perches and heavy shrub cover. They feed mostly on small mammals that include deer mice, shrews, voles, squirrels, bats, flying squirrels, and house mice. Frogs, insects, and birds up to cardinal size can be killed by saw-whets. Sometimes these small owls will eat a mouse in two meals. When prey is plentiful, they will often eat only the head of their prey. In winter they will also kill several mice quite quickly and cache them in hiding places, saving them for a later date when they can thaw out and eat the carcass. What a clever use of nature’s freezer!
Night-time is truly a great time to enjoy the outdoors, even in winter. So many nocturnal animals can bring us the same exciting discoveries that diurnal animals can. Sometimes we do not have to go far, as the next observation might be right outside our doorway!
For over 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and new exhibit, Our Shared Planet, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Post your own stories on the Nature Watch blog at cablemuseumnaturewatch.blogspot.com.