Bird Lore: Northern Saw-whet Owl

Owls come in all sizes. The largest North American owl, the Great Gray Owl, is 27 inches in length. The Northern Saw-whet Owl is only eight inches in length. It has been seen very few times in Edmonds, but is probably much more abundant than records suggest. As a nocturnal owl, it is generally quiet during the day, sits still, and moves its roosting site from day to day. These are tactics to avoid notice by predators such as crows and larger owls. Its day roost is usually a lateral branch of a conifer in a dense grove. Given that we live in an area of tall conifers, this small owl is easily overlooked.

We know of two Northern Saw-whet Owls seen in Edmonds in the last five years. A Yost Park visitor encountered one on a trail in June 2015 and photographed it. In August 2019, one showed up in a yard near Pine Ridge Park. After sitting for a day in the property owners’ water feature, they concluded that it was sick or injured and took it to PAWS for rehabilitation. After an initial rebound, the owl died. In December 2019 and January 2020 there were several sightings of a Northern Saw-whet Owl at a day roost in Lynndale Park near Perrinville. Since this species moves among different day roosts, it is probable that it spent time in Edmonds, posssibly in nearby Southwest County Park. That was never confirmed though.

The Northern Saw-whet Owl hunts at night and finds its prey by sound and sight. It usually waits on a low perch and then swoops down to pluck a mouse or vole. It sometimes also eats shrews, young squirrels, small birds, and large insects. Its favored prey are deer mice of the genus Peromyscus. It will eat an adult mouse in pieces, usually over the course of two meals.

As early as late January, the male sings incessantly at night to defend its territory and attract a mate. In the Puget Sound region it can be heard singing in December. The Northern Saw-whet Owl readily takes to nest boxes but usually locates its nest in the abandoned hole of a Northern Flicker or a Pileated Woodpecker. It appears that this species will not use the same nest site two years in a row. The female incubates the five to six eggs for a period of 27-29 days. The female remains in the nest almost constantly from the time the first egg is laid. The male brings food, first for her and then for the chicks. When the youngest chick is about 18 days old, the female will also begin to hunt for them.

The female keeps a very clean nest. Once she leaves, the mess starts to accumulate. By the time the owlets leave the nest a couple of weeks later, the nest cavity sports a thick layer of feces, pellets, and rotting prey parts. The owlets leave the nest at about four to five weeks. They remain together near the nest for at least another four weeks. During this time the male feeds them with the female providing some food. Occasionally the female will move on, find another mate, and nest for a second time during breeding season.

Lore has it that the Northern Saw-whet Owl was named for giving a call that sounds like sharpening a saw on a whetting stone. There is, however, no consensus as to which of its several calls would have given rise to the name. The oldest Northern Saw-whet Owl of record was at least nine years and five months of age when it was captured and released by a Minnesota bird bander.

For conservation purposes, the Northern Saw-whet Owl is of low concern. While it is a common and widespread species, its secretive nature makes population trends difficult to identify. The estimated global breeding population is two million, with 71% spending part of the year in the U.S., 46% in Canada, and 4% in Mexico. There has probably been some population decline due to habitat loss. It favors mature stands of forest that may come under pressure for logging or development.

You can hear the predawn singing of an adult Northern Saw-whet Owl here:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.




  1. I absolutely love these postings, Carol Riddell. They are so informative. I also love the sound recordings. Thank you for sending these posts out whenever you can. Keep up the great work, please!

  2. Thanks for the upddate and the info Carol. I’m going to keep my eyes and ears sharp while staying local in our fabUlous parks.

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