Big Little Hunter
In praise of the Saw-whet Owl
Happy Sunday, fauna fans! October is the perfect month for creatures of the night, so this week we're celebrating the Northern Saw-whet Owl, one of the smallest owls in North America.
The Saw-whet Waits
She stirs as the sun drifts to sleep
A small hunter who ruffles and rises
Twists her feathers and snaps her beak
As if to ward off the lingering daylight.
Nestled in pine needles
She will wait until the night has woken
She will wait
For the still crisp air
That carries the sounds of the scurrying things
And welcomes her wings
As easily as flesh welcomes her talons.
She loves how the world expands at night
Her ears reaching out to the distant river
Her eyes reaching up to the distant stars.
She does not feel small.
Not at night.
At night she is the river and the moon and the stars.
She waits, and snaps her beak,
To drive away the light.
~ Marilyn Anne Campbell
The Big Little Hunter
Northern Saw-whet owls are only about 20 centimeters tall. Like most owls they are nocturnal, preferring to hunt small mammals such as mice, voles, and shrews by night. They will also eat large insects and small birds, and are themselves in danger of becoming the prey of larger owls, hawks, and falcons. Saw-whets live across much of Canada and parts of the U.S., reaching as far south as Mexico. They prefer coniferous trees for roosting during the day and hunting from at night, but nest in cavities inside mature deciduous trees (or in nest boxes some kind humans put up for them).
They are also pretty adorable, with their large heads and big yellow eyes framed by dark eye-liner and white flourishes reminiscent of the glow around the moon. They get their name from one of the many noises they make, which apparently people used to think sounded like a saw being sharpened. These days, their most common call is compared to the repetitive beeping of a truck in reverse. But “the Northern Backinup Owl” just doesn’t have the same charm.
Tiny, nocturnal, and well-camouflaged, the Northern Saw-whet isn’t a bird you bump into very often, even if they are believed to be common (just because people don’t see a bird, doesn’t mean they aren’t there). Yet one winter night as I was walking home from the bus stop, I was stopped by a flash of white appearing out of dark, swooping silently to rest on a low branch overhanging the sidewalk. I don’t know if the Saw-whet noticed me before they chose their perch or not, but for a moment we just looked at each other, no more than five feet apart. Then I stepped off the sidewalk and carried on, giving the little hunter a wide berth. After all, my work day was over, but theirs was just getting started.
Share Your Thoughts
Have you ever seen or heard a Saw-whet, or another owl in the wild? Do you have a favourite owl fact, or know of an organization supporting Saw-whets and other owls? Share your comment with everyone, or hit reply to this email to send us a note directly.
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Thanks for reading,
Marilyn & Steve
Get an overview of the Saw-whet Owl on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website.
Read “How the Stealthy Saw-whet Owl Duped Scientists for a Century” in Kenn Kaufman’s Notebook on Audubon.org
Late October is when the Long Point Bird Observatory on Lake Erie is busy netting and banding Saw-whets so scientists can learn more about them. Watch this YouTube video to learn about the bird banding process and see how small a Saw-whet is in the hand of ornithologist Jody Allair.
Canadians can symbolically adopt a Saw-whet from World Wildlife Fund Canada (and opt to get a cute plush version at the same time).
Watch the process as digital artist Shelley Penner paints a Saw-whet.
And below, watch a YouTube video of a Northern Saw-whet owl out for an unusual daytime hunt (if you’d rather not see a dead vole, there’s still nice footage of the owl first, just stop the video at the two minute mark):
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Mouse and Minnow is co-created by partners Steve Alguire (illustration) and Marilyn Anne Campbell (writing). Learn more about the newsletter or use the subscribe button below to receive original art and writing about the wonderful creatures of this world right in your inbox.
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This is one of my absolute favourite owls ! So cute !