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Baby Saw-whet Owl


Dear Bird Folks,

My Wellfleet friend, Jeffrey, just sent me this photograph of a bird looking out of his birdhouse. He thinks it’s a screech-owl, but I’m not so sure. I’m planning to go to his house later today, but I want to check with you first. What do you think?

– Liz, Orleans, MA


He’s wrong, Liz,

I hate to ruin your friend’s day, but he doesn’t have a screech-owl living in his birdhouse. I appreciate that when people go through the trouble of putting up a screech-owl box, they want to get a tenant as soon as possible. But I can’t lie to your friend just to make him feel better. However, I can tell him something that should make him feel even betterer. The bird in his box actually is an owl; it’s a baby Northern Saw-whet Owl, a bird that is considerably less common around here than screech-owls. So, if you really are headed to Wellf- leet, Liz, pick me up on the way by. I would love to see this baby owl. Plus, I love getting out of work.

Liz picked me up and when we arrived, Jeff met us at the door. He was taking a break from his woodworking shop, where he makes furniture and very handsome clocks. He showed us to the deck that overlooked his backyard and the owl box. Liz and I immediately trained our binoculars on the box’s large entrance hole, but we saw nothing except emptiness. Hmm. I kept staring at the hole, while Jeff gave us the back-story on his owl. He first saw an adult owl looking out of the box back in April and… Right in the middle of his story, I interrupted by saying, “Hold on, I see the baby!” Through my binoculars I could see two yellow eyes staring at me. Each eye was topped by a pair of bright white “eyebrows,” the signature field marks for a young saw-whet owl. Liz, who is an active naturalist, was thrilled, as she had never seen one of these tiny owls before. It was a life bird for her, so Jeff broke open a cold bottle of champagne. (It was actually a bottle of Poland Springs, but the champagne makes for a better story.)

Like many cavity-nesting birds, baby owls get restless as they get older and eventually will spend much of the day looking out the “window.” Knowing this, we stood on the deck for quite a while hoping the bird would pop out so we could get a better look and even a photo, but the bird stayed put. Finally, in desperation to draw it out, Liz began making squeaky mouse sounds with her lips. (Actually we both did it, but I’m not going to admit it. I have my dignified image to protect.) None of our clever tricks worked and the bird remained deep in the box, with only its yellow eyes peering out. Ultimately, we had to call it quits, head for Orleans and let Jeff get back to making his clocks. When Liz arrived home she found an email from Jeff. He said that an hour after we left the baby finally popped out of the hole. (It was probably waiting for the phony mouse squeaks to stop.) Jeff reported that it came out at “exactly 6:55 PM,” and I believe him. When it comes to the correct time, I never doubt the word of a clockmaker.

Saw-whet owls are by far the smallest of the Cape’s owls. How small are they? They are so small that it would take twenty-three saw-whets to equal the weight of a single Snowy Owl. Due to their petite size, saw-whets are vulnerable to a whole host of predators, including other owls. Thus, they tend to remain inactive until well after dark. This means most Cape Codders likely have never seen one. In fact, the famous birder, Christian Hagenlocher, didn’t find a saw-whet owl during his record “big year” until the end of December. (And I believe Chris found that critical bird in nearby Truro.) While it’s hard to spot these birds, hearing them is fairly easy. Saw-whets have a distinctive, and very un-owl-like, single note “toot” song. The monotonous toot is repeated over and over, and over and over, sounding like a truck backing up…only a lot less annoying. The bird’s odd name is attributed to early settlers who thought the call sounded like someone sharpening a saw with a whetstone. I’ve heard lots of saw-whets singing and not a single one of them ever sounded like a whetstone. I think the settler who came up with this name had too much imagination…or too much firewater.

Because of their reclusive habits, it’s extremely difficult to get an accurate census of this owl’s population. But based on the latest breeding bird survey, it is thought that the number of saw-whet owls breeding in Massachusetts is on the increase. And fortunately for us, the Outer Cape seems to be a very productive area for them. Even in my over-developed East Orleans neighborhood, I regularly hear their distinctive late night calls. Although it could also be a truck backing up, but I don’t think trucks are allowed in my neighborhood.

Two days after we saw the saw-whet owl in Wellfleet, Jeff contacted Liz and told her that the baby was no longer being seen. While I’m sure that was a little sad for Jeff (classic empty nest syndrome), it was good news for the young owl. It meant that it was no longer confined to the cramped nest box and was now up and out and flying on its own (with its parents close behind). Liz, thanks to both you and Jeff for sharing that baby saw-whet owl with me. I enjoyed seeing the owl and it was nice to meet your friend. However, the highlight of the entire day was hearing you make those imitation mouse sounds. I think you might have a new career ahead of you.