Blane Klemek: The northern saw-whet owl is one of Minnesota’s smallest
I remember very well the first time I heard the call, or song if you will, of one of Minnesota’s smallest owls: the northern saw-whet owl. The call of this diminutive bird of prey is unmistakable. So unlike that of other owls, its call is often described as a long series of monotonous tooting whistles repeated as much as 100-130 times per minute. “Poo, poo, poo, poo, poo, poo, poo, poo, poo . . .” And on and on and on it goes.
David Allen Sibley, author of “The Sibley Guide to Birds”, describes the repetitive, rhythmic song as, “…low, whistled toots (about two per second) poo, poo, poo…or toit toit toit…” As well, he continues, “…wheezy, rising, catlike screech shweee; soft, nasal barks keew or pew…whining, soft whistle eeeooi.” Honestly, try as I may, I have a difficult time pronouncing, let alone imagining, a few of those odd looking words he uses to describe saw-whet talk.
It’s closing in on twenty years ago when, in the early spring of snow-filled woodland, that I heard my first saw-whet. I stood outside my home and listened incredulously to the vocalization, but I had no idea what I was listening to. I did, however, think “owl”.
Typically silent throughout much of the year, the northern saw-whet owl begins its endless monotone in late winter and early spring, usually from March until May, during the breeding season. Evidently, the owl’s name, “saw-whet”, refers to one of its vocalizations, which, surprisingly, is not the oft heard “poo poo poo” song. It’s the northern saw-whet’s alarm call, the “keew” or “pew”, which earned the owl its name. Another writer describes the call as “skiew”; a sound similar to the whetting or sharpening of a saw.
Returning to the house the night I heard my first saw-whet, I dug out my audiocassette tape of birdcalls and songs. Sure enough, after listening to the northern saw-whet calls and songs, I learned that the “poo, poo, poo” song was none other than the saw-whet. Some time later I heard the call again, but closer to the house. So, with flashlight in hand, I trudged into the dark woodland to find the source of that unique and special song.
A short time later I was surprised and delighted to locate the tiny owl. Within a small grove of twenty-year old Norway pine trees and sitting on a low branch next to one of the tree’s trunks, sat perched for my first glimpse a saw-whet. My initial impression of the bird was how amazingly small it was. I had imagined as I stumbled through the darkness that I’d find a larger bird. After all, he had such a commanding voice.
My second thought upon observing the little owl, was how tame he appeared to be. It would occasionally fly to another nearby tree, perhaps bothered by the beam of the flashlight, before allowing my continued advance and another minute or two of my admiring him. Satisfying at last my curiosity, it was I who finally left the owl alone in the grove to poo poo poo some more.
Since northern saw-whet owls remain relatively quiet for the bulk of the year, in all likelihood one could be residing in a nearby woodlot and you’d never know it. During the nesting season, the petite saw-whet chooses abandoned pileated woodpecker or flicker holes for nest sites, in addition to natural cavities or artificial nest boxes such as wood duck houses.
The tiny seven-inch bird can easily go unnoticed by even the savviest birder, save for that incessant song of theirs that gives their presence instantly away. And because they are cavity nesters and would probably prefer to nest in natural cavities and woodpecker holes, finding a saw-whet can prove to be a difficult task. Most owls are fairly reclusive and, except for a few species such as snowy, northern hawk, and short-eared owls, are most active during the dark of night.
The northern saw-whet owl is no exception. It spends the nights hunting for small rodents like mice and voles. When prey is plentiful, this extraordinary little owl will kill a half a dozen or more small rodents in quick order, most of which is cached for later dining. During the harsh months of winter, saw-whets are known to actually “brood” frozen carcasses to, in essence, thaw them out before swallowing them whole.
Its preferred habitat is mixed coniferous and deciduous woodlands, particularly those second growth forests, and not necessarily old growth. Saw-whets breed throughout southeastern Alaska, southern Canada and across most of the northern tier lower 48 states, as well as California, Arizona and the Appalachians.
Five to six eggs are laid, usually two, and incubation duties are performed entirely by the female. Meanwhile, the male saw-whet’s job is to hunt and gather, feed his mate, and defend the nesting territory.
Hearing the song of the northern saw-whet owl is a real treat. Without fail, when I listen to its monotonous proclamation that “All is well and good”, I can’t help but smile and remember the time when I first heard this tiny feathered friend.
Indeed, the vociferous little owl of the Northwoods that goes toot in the night has a small call to recall as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)