Meet Our Tiniest Owl

Saw-whet owlThe northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) is the smallest owl in Massachusetts. As a nearly silent, nocturnal bird of deep woods, it’s also one of the hardest to spot.

Identifying the Saw-whet

If you’re lucky enough to see this bird, the first thing you may notice is the size. It measures just 8 inches from head to tail; that’s less than a third as long as a snowy owl—and just a bit longer than a standard pencil.

Northern saw-whets have a pale face. They’re mostly brown above with a few white streaks, and white below with brown streaks. Fledgling saw-whets are chocolate brown above and rusty red below.

The name “saw-whet” comes from the bird’s alarm call, which resembles the sound of a saw being sharpened. Its other noises include whistles and a short repetitive tooting. But don’t rely on calls to help you find one: outside of the breeding season (and usually at dawn or dusk), it rarely makes a peep.

The Secret Lives of Saw-whets

Its habitat makes it even harder to find: it breeds deep in coniferous forests, and winters in areas with dense vegetation. It’s also nocturnal, hunting mice and other small creatures by remaining completely still and then dropping down on its prey. It raises one brood of youngsters during the spring and summer.

Some northern saw-whet owls remain in Massachusetts all winter. During especially severe weather, new birds may fly in from the north. However, most of the saw-whets in our state will migrate south. This movement begins in early September and ends in late November.

A Rare Glimpse

During the fall saw-whet migration, researchers in Massachusetts attach bands to the legs of saw-whets so that they can learn more about their movements. At Mass Audubon, you can observe this process by joining an upcoming banding program, though spaces fill up very quickly. Or, join an upcoming owl prowl—you never know what you may see or hear!

Have you seen a saw-whet before? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

11 thoughts on “Meet Our Tiniest Owl

  1. r.s haley

    I have a saw-whet living in my barn right now, it’s been here for over a week. Pretty sure that it’s catching the mice in my animal barn for me. Very calm, you can go about your business feeding everyone while he or she just watches. Very pretty bird, also very welcome to stay.

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  2. Deborah

    I’m afraid that my first and only site of one of these darling saw-whets was also difficult to see. It was probably about six weeks ago. A large hawk clutched tiny saw-whet in his talons as he flew into the back yard and landed on a large horizontal branch on a huge silver maple. The hawk never loosed his grip of the saw-whet even for a second while he stood upon it and proceeded to begin having his dinner. Within a minute, an unaware neighbor dropped something on his porch and the noise drove the hawk away immediately, still clutching the owl, without changing the position of his grip on it. The saw-whet never moved or blinked it’s eyes or made a sound. I simply prayed that he had passed on immediately when he was first clutched.

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  3. Jeff

    I found a Massachusetts banded Saw-Whet here in NH while driving to work about a year ago. It had been hit by a car and had a broken wing. It was a dark (pre-dawn) morning, and I found the little thing sitting on the double yellow line in the road. I stopped and walked right up to the cutie, and was surprised when it actually climbed right onto my finger! I took her back home and delivered her to a local wildlife rehab facility. Not sure if they were able to return her to the wild or not. If not, she is most likely with Eyes on Owls. What a precious little owl. My wife cried when we left her.

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  4. Dawn S

    I would love to see one or any owl. I would like more information on attending an owl prowl, so if there is one on Cape Cod, please let me know.

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  5. Lydia

    We were blessed years ago by having a little saw-whet sit in full daylight on our porch railing where it met the side of our garage, in full view from our living room window, for quite a long time, on Cape Cod… a wonderful close-up view of a sweet little creature.

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  6. E.B. Benson

    I was treated one autumn a few years ago while walking to see a saw-whet owl sitting on the top of a stop sign a couple of blocks from my house. I called a friend to come see the owl, but it had gone by the time my friend arrived. I have not seen another one since.

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  7. Carolyn Carner

    My only siting of a Saw Whet Owl was a sad one. It was in the spring and I found it along the road after it was hit by a car. It was very intact and had some straw/grass in it’s beak … must have been making a nest. I wish I had photographed it … it was beautiful and so small!

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  8. tammy schwaab

    There is a banding station for saw-whets at South Mountain in Frederick County, MD. For years it has been run by a birder named Steve Huy. The saw-whets fit inside a Campbell’s soup can and are one of the coolest little owls I have seen. They are also often found on Assateague Island in the winter.

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