Northern Saw-whet Owl

Species Spotlight by Wendy Perrone

Scientific Name: Aegolius acadiucs

Common Names: Sparrow Owl, White- Fronted Owl, Acadian Owl, Kirtland's Owl, Whetsaw

Size: Females weigh 3-4 ounces, males weigh an average of 3 ounces. Average height is around 8 inches or less. Wingspan is around 17 - 20 inches.

Range: Resident from southeastern Alaska across Canada south to California and New Mexico in the West, North Carolina in the East. Winters through it's entire breeding range and down into western Mexico. Also found in Europe.

Habitat: prefers conifers, preferably in a swampy or boggy area. Will sometimes nest and roost in mixed coniferous or deciduous woodlands, prefers higher altitudes.

Food preferences: primarily insects and mice, although they also will eat small rats, young red squirrels, chipmunks, shrews, bats, sparrows, juncos and warblers.

Mating: Polygamous??? Female approaches courting male, he flies into prospective nest hole and vocalizes, male retrieves food from cache and presents to female.

Nesting: Usually nests in abandoned woodpecker holes or natural cavities with well-matted bed of decayed chips and feathers, usually 10 - 20 feet above ground level. Will accept man-made nest-boxes (sized for flickers or wood ducks). Nest far apart (0.3 > 1 mile). Male feeds incubating female, female does most of the incubation.

Eggs: 5-6 white eggs, about 1.2" in length (think of a Ping-Pong ball) laid in the final weeks of March all the way up to the beginning of July, depending on prey abundance. Young hatch asynchronously, can fly 27 - 34 days after hatching.

Average Life span: in captivity, some Saw Whets have reached over 17 years old.

Hunting Technique: Perch and glide predator. Nocturnal in habits, most active at dusk and just before dawn.

Status: uncommon in West Virginia, mostly observed in higher, swampy places such as Dolly Sods, the Elkins area and Cranesville Swamp. WV is in the southern part of this owl's summer range.

Notes: This is the smallest owl in Eastern North America. The typical call of a Saw-whet is sort of a grasshopper sound that resembles a long crosscut saw being sharpened -- hence the name "saw-whet" (according to one version of the story!). They are relatively unafraid of humans, and will come to a mimicked call. Most Saw-whet calls occur during mating season, after that, they are remarkably quiet and hard to find in the woods. Most of the day is spent napping on a densely - covered tree branch close to the ground, or it may be found perched in or near a tree cavity. If it is disturbed while nesting, it will refuse to leave.

Despite their diminutive size, Saw-Whets are very good at dealing with the colder temperatures and prey shortages found during northern winters. When there is an abundance of prey available, (especially if the temperature is dropping) these owls will catch and kill enough food to set aside for a week or so in a cache. During longer spells of cold, these caches may freeze. However, as with most northern owls, Saw-whets have developed a simple but very effective way of thawing food: they sit on it, just as if they were incubating it. When the food warms to a palatable temperature, the owl dines.

A sudden influx (or "irruption") of Saw- whets was noted during the winter of 1996 - 1997 along the Allegheny Front, the mountain range that borders West Virginia and Virginia.