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Tiny Saw-Whet Owls Defy Your Owl Expectations

Updated: Jan 4

When you think about owls, what comes to mind? Large birds that hoot in the night? That may be true of some owls, but northern saw-whet owls defy some of the expectations we have about owls.


A northern saw-whet owl on a mossy log.
A northern saw-whet owl. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Northern saw-whet owls are nocturnal, almost exclusively so, but they certainly aren't large, and they definitely don't hoot. These owls are among the smallest in the world, about the size of a robin. They stand between 7 inches to 8 inches tall and weigh just 2 ounces to 5 ounces.


Compare that to the more familiar great horned owl, which can stand 2 feet tall and weigh between 2 pounds and 5 pounds. Tiny northern saw-whet owls are much closer in size to the world's smallest owl, the elf owl, which lives in the American Southwest. Elf owls are the smallest raptor in the world. They are only 4 inches to 6 inches tall and weigh less than 2 ounces. That’s about as much as a tennis ball.

 

Words to know

Cavity: An empty space within an object.

Fledgling: A young bird that has just learned to fly.

Melodic: Pleasant sounding.

Monogamous: Paired with one other individual at a time.

Mottling: Marked with spots or smears of color.

Raptor: A bird of prey that hunts other animals.

 

These tiny owls don't hoot either. In fact, many owls don't hoot like great horned owls do. Northern saw-whet owls sing out a melodic "too-too-too-too-too." Males sing to mark their territory and to find a mate, but females also sometimes sing while seeking a partner. These owls were named for their song, which is said to sound similar to a whetstone being used to sharpen a saw.


One thing northern saw-whet owls do have in common with many owls is their nocturnal lifestyle. They hunt almost exclusively at night. They sit patiently on a perch while looking and listening for prey and then swoop down for the catch. Their preferred food is mice, but they also eat other small rodents like voles, shrews, chipmunks and squirrels as well as small birds and large insects.


If you go out in search of these owls, don't be surprised if you don’t find one. While they are common across their range, they aren't often seen. They live coast to coast across much of the northern United States and southern Canada as well as parts of the Southwest and Mexico. They prefer to live in mature forests.


In Illinois, they can be found in the northern part of the state year-round, and some of these owls from the northern edges of the territory may also winter in the southern half of the state. They are thought to be more common than known because of their secretive nature.


During the day, northern saw-whet owls roost in trees, often just above a person's eye level near the tree trunk. When day turns to night and the time comes to hunt, they often stay at that level. This gives them a good vantage point for seeing rodents on the ground below.


As adults, they have mostly brown feathers to help them blend in. Their round faces are brown with white mottling, and they have bright yellow eyes. Young saw-whet owls look quite different than the adults. They have cinnamon-colored bellies and chocolate brown faces with a white V above the eyes.


A mated pair of northern saw-whet owls is usually monogamous, but males may have more than one female mate when the food supply is good. Males start calling for a mate as early as January, even before females arrive on their breeding territory. They can continue calling through May.


Northern saw-whet owls usually nest in cavities built and used by other birds, often pileated woodpeckers or northern flickers. The female will lay her eggs in the soft bed of the previous nest, and they will hatch a little less than a month later. Once the eggs hatch, the female keeps the owlets warm and safe and the male brings food back to the nest for the babies and their mother.


Baby owls stay in the nest for four to five weeks before fledging. After fledging, they still need their parents for food and support for a few more months. They are fully independent after about three months, and some may reproduce during their first year.

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