Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Vancouver Island, BC
Photo by Robert Logan

The Northern Saw-whet Owl is our smallest owl on Vancouver Island, they are around the size of an American Robin. They can be found in dense thickets or conifers, often at eye level, although they can be found around 20 feet up. Saw-whets are often in danger of being preyed upon by larger owls and raptors. Saw-whet owls are also migratory birds without any strict pattern.

The Northern Saw-whet Owl has a round, light, white face with brown and cream streaks; they also have a dark beak and yellow eyes. They resemble the short-eared owl, because they also lack ear tufts, but are much smaller. The underparts are pale with dark shaded areas; the upper parts are brown or reddish with white spots. They are quite common, but hard to spot.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Vancouver Island, BC
Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Vancouver Island, BC, photo by Robert Logan

They make a tooting whistle sound. Their voice sounds like a knife being sharpened on a whetstone. They make this sound to find a mate in the spring. Although they make this sound repeatedly in the spring, they do toot throughout the year.

They live in coniferous forests, or sometimes in mixed or deciduous woods. Most birds nest in coniferous type forests of the North, but winter in mixed or deciduous woods in the south.  They live in tree cavities and old nests made by other small raptors. Some do not migrate, while others may migrate south in winter or move down from higher elevations. Their range covers coastal Alaska, southern Canada, and all of Vancouver Island. They are quite common throughout most of North America.

The Northern Saw-whet Owl has very good hearing. It is due to vertically asymmetrical ears. Because the sound reaches the ears at a different time and is of different intensity, the Northern Saw-whet Owl can easily locate its prey. This ability allows them to hunt in complete darkness, only using their hearing.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Vancouver Island, BC
Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Vancouver Island, BC, photo by Robert Logan

Northern Saw-Whet Owls lay up to six white eggs in natural tree cavities or old woodpecker holes. The male does all the hunting and the female cares for the eggs and hatchlings after they are born.  Once the offspring have developed their feathers the mother will leave the male to care for them and go find another male to reproduce with.  They compete with Boreal Owls, Starlings, and Squirrels for nest cavities.

These birds will perch in a high tree and listen for prey, they then silently swoop down and grab the unwary creature. They mainly eat small organisms, with a strong focus on small mammals in their diet. On the Pacific coast, they may also eat crustaceans, frogs, and aquatic insects. These owls are quite common on Vancouver Island, but as they roost during the day and only hunt at night, they are not seen very often.

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