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Blane Klemek column: Little bird that could: the northern saw-whet owl

The small, rarely-seen northern saw-whet owl. Photo by Kristina Servant.

On the first night of my annual winter camping/lake trout fishing adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness late last month, I awoke to the sound of snow falling lightly on my nylon pup tent.

As the snow accumulated on the tent's sagging fly, the fabric's smoothness along with perpetual gravity eventually combined forces to cause sheets of snow to intermittently whoosh down the fly and thump to the ground outside. Comforting as it was to lie there deep inside my warm and snug Army goose-down sleeping bag and listen, I was also acutely aware that come daylight, whatever weather may come, I'd have to emerge and crawl outdoors and face the cold.

While trying to drift back to sleep, I became aware of another sound in the forest. Straining to hear and identify the source, I was soon delighted in my realization that despite cold and snowfall, one little bird was evidently unfazed by the late season snow and the darkness of a nighttime wilderness. Indeed, I was listening to none other than the diminutive, though hardy as they come, northern saw-whet owl.

I first became aware of this tiny tot of an owl many years ago on an early spring night. After letting the dog outside my rural northern Minnesota home for his nightly duty, I followed after him and stood silently for a time below a starlit sky listening in the dark of the moonless nightfall.

Off in the distance I heard a long series of monotonous-sounding whistles that could only be describe as a sort of relentless tooting, which wasn't much of a departure from the sound a cheap whistle-toy would emit if blown into.

"Too, too, too, too, too, too, too, too, too . . ." And on and on and on it went; a repertoire repeated as much as 100-130 times per minute. Back then I had no idea what I was listening to, but I did remember thinking it was probably an owl. After all, how many creatures are vocal during the night? I knew it wasn't a frog or insect.

Typically silent throughout much of the year, the northern saw-whet owl begins its endless monotone love song in late winter and early spring. Having heard the owl, though truly a pleasant sound, was not enough for me on that particular night. Returning to the house I dug out my audiocassette tape of birdcalls and songs. Sure enough, the "too-too-too" call was none other than that of the saw-whet.

Some time later I heard the call again, but closer. So, with flashlight in hand, I trudge into the dark woodland to find the source of the unique call.

After a short search and stumbling around in the woods, I was surprised to find the tiny owl. Within a small grove of 20-year-old Norway pine trees and sitting on a low branch next to one of the tree's trunks, sat perched my first glimpse of a saw-whet.

"Amazingly small," was my initial thought. My second thought was how tame the owl appeared to be. It would occasionally fly to another nearby tree only to allow my continued approach.

The northern saw-whet owl is Minnesota's smallest owl. Weighing within a range of about two to five ounces with a length of around six to eight inches from beak to tail, saw-whet owls spend most of their lives in relative secrecy. Inhabiting mixed coniferous-deciduous forests, including cedar swamps, saw-whet owls are hard to spot. Complicating matters for would-be human observers is the fact that the pint-sized birds are entirely nocturnal and often roost inside tree cavities.

Cavity nesters, saw-whet owls will also adopt artificial nest boxes from time to time. Back when I managed the Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary, Warren, a former manager discovered nesting saw-whets inside a wood duck house that was placed some 20 feet high in a tree. From what I understand, it was the only year that nesting saw-whets were ever found on the refuge. The owl-pair went on to successfully raise their offspring. And though I never observed nesting saw-whets at the Audubon refuge, I would occasionally hear them calling from nearby woodlots. I could only assume that a pair or two found suitable natural or woodpecker-excavated tree cavities to nest in.

After choosing a nest cavity, female saw-whets perform all the incubating and brooding duties. Spending most of her time inside the cavity, she only leaves to defecate and to regurgitate pellets. Meanwhile, her dutiful mate spends his time feeding her a steady diet of mostly small rodents such as mice and voles that he captures and delivers to her.

She stays with her chicks, usually five or six owlets, inside the cavity for about 18 days before finally leaving the nest-cavity for her own hunting forays. About two weeks later, the chicks venture outside, where their father continues to take up most of the feeding chores.

For sure, as it was a treat for me many years ago when I first heard the little owl's call, so, too, was hearing once again the now familiar call of the northern saw-whet owl just a short time ago while in the Boundary Waters.

Though silent on-the-wing and rarely observed, the little denizen of Minnesota's dark forests and dense woodlots are here for our listening pleasure as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.