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What is a Northern Saw-Whet Owl?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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Aegolius acadicus, better known as the northern saw-whet owl, is a small owl native to North America. Noted for its diminutive size, the northern saw-whet owl is also extremely well adapted to a variety of habitats, and can be found in deserts, boreal and subtropical forests, and even some urban areas. Habitat loss has lead to diminishing populations in some of the owl's large range, but it remains one of the most populous owls throughout North America.

Usually rising to a height of about eight inches (20.3 cm), the northern saw-whet owl has a similarly small wingspan, generally reaching about 20 inches (50.8 cm) from wingtip to wingtip; females tend to be slightly larger than males. Coloration is dark brown with patches of white, the better to blend into the coniferous forests that the owl prefers. Like many owls, the northern saw-whet owl has startlingly large and bright yellow eyes.

A nocturnal hunter, the owl feeds mostly on small rodents, insects, and birds. Some coastal populations have been observed dining on crustaceans and other seaside species. The owl uses a combination of the diminished light of evening and its camouflaged coloration to help sneak up on prey. Though predators to many smaller animals, the saw whet owls can also be prey themselves, particularly to large owl species such as the great horned and barred owls. Unfortunately for avid bird-watchers, the nocturnal habits of the owl make sightings rare, despite its extremely wide-spread range.

Mating among the saw-whet owls takes place in spring and early summer, though males may start displaying mating behavior throughout winter. Owls typically form a bonded pair, particularly in areas where food supply is scarce. Mother owls incubate the nest full-time, but leave the nest shortly after the chicks hatch. The father owl provides food throughout the incubation and hatching period, and continues to bring meals to the baby owls even after the mother has departed. Chicks reach sexual maturity in about one year.

The range of the northern saw-whet owl is quite staggering, especially for such a small animal. Breeding and permanent populations are found across the entire continent, reaching well into Canada and even south of the United States into central Mexico. The excellent camouflage and adaptable eating patterns of the owl, as well as its cooperative parenting structure, allow it to thrive in many different settings. Population estimates for the species suggest that somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 individuals live in the wild, making the northern saw-whet owl one of North America's most common, if least seen, owl species.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Northern Saw-Whet Owl?

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a small, nocturnal bird of prey found in North America. It's known for its distinctive too-too-too call and cat-like face with large, yellow eyes. Despite its diminutive size, typically around 8 inches in length, this owl is a proficient hunter, preying on insects and small mammals.

Where can you find Northern Saw-Whet Owls?

Northern Saw-Whet Owls are widely distributed across North America, from southern Canada to northern Mexico. They inhabit dense coniferous forests, often near water sources. During migration, they can be found in various habitats, including suburban areas, highlighting their adaptability.

How do Northern Saw-Whet Owls communicate?

Northern Saw-Whet Owls communicate primarily through vocalizations. Their most famous call resembles the sound of a saw being sharpened on a whetstone, hence their name. These calls are used during mating season to establish territory and attract mates. They also have a range of other calls for different social interactions.

What do Northern Saw-Whet Owls eat?

These owls are carnivorous and have a diet consisting mainly of small mammals like mice and voles. They also eat insects and other small creatures. Their hunting strategy involves perching quietly and pouncing on prey with their sharp talons, usually hunting at dusk and dawn.

How do Northern Saw-Whet Owls reproduce?

Northern Saw-Whet Owls breed once a year, with the female laying 4-7 eggs in a tree cavity. The male provides food while the female incubates the eggs for about a month. After hatching, the young owls are cared for by both parents until they fledge at around 7 weeks old.

Are Northern Saw-Whet Owls endangered?

Currently, Northern Saw-Whet Owls are not considered endangered. They are classified as 'Least Concern' by the IUCN Red List, indicating a stable population. However, they face threats from habitat loss and collisions with vehicles during migration, underscoring the importance of conservation efforts for their habitats.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for AllThingsNature. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon155435 — On Feb 23, 2011

I was wondering. I have seen a Northern Saw-whet Owl and he was out in the open, awake, around noon almost every time I went to see him. Everywhere i go to look if that is normal, all it says that these tiny owls are never seen and are very nocturnal. Should I report that i saw it? What do I do? I have not touched it or even tried to! Thanks. Pearl

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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