Northern Saw-Whet Owl
Balls of fluff, Saw-whets are one of the cutest birds around—or so you would think. Pound for pound they are possibly the most ferocious of predators, killing mostly mice but also other birds and insects.
Saw-whets arrive in Cape May in October and sometimes go through in hundreds. If you have driven down Sunset Boulevard in October or November on a calm night you could hear the constant whistled toot. Just do a short whistle every second and you will sound like a Saw-whet.
Most have migrated through by December, but a few stay on for the winter. Quite a lot get killed by cars. They fly quite low to the ground, and places like the Garden State Parkway are very good for mice and other prey; sadly, cars too.
Cape May is one of dozens of owl-banding sites in North America that have really helped us understand so much more about these beauties. Knowing about Saw-whets’ behavior and movements would be just about impossible without a banding operation run by Katy and Patrick Duffy for a couple of decades now. Nearly all breed to the north of us, with a few pairs in the Pine Barrens. They are widespread across forests right across the USA and southern Canada. Knowledge is power in conservation, just like in so many other things, and these banding sites have helped a lot!
Occasionally the owls will call back but more often do a cat-like ‘mewing’ call or click their bill. Even when you can hear them, seeing one is almost impossible because of their tiny size and brown colors that blend into the tree bark. They have a propensity to stay hidden in part because this fearsome predator is also prey for larger owls.
Like other owls, they have serrated wing tips on the leading edge of their wings and a soft feather allows air to pass through with barely a noise. A stealth hunter’s element of surprise is a great weapon.
The round or heart-shaped face discs of owls are designed for detecting and channeling sound, just like we do when we cup our hands behind our ears and point them to where the sound is originating. Owls can go one better and even change the shape of the facial disc, and a facial ruff creates a wall of stiff feathers around the wall of the face that collects more sound. They can pinpoint exactly where the sound is coming from and so they don’t need to see their prey to be able to catch it. Their hearing is many times better than ours. Good luck trying to sneak up on an owl!
On calm days after cold fronts have passed through, Saw-whets may come through in hundreds in good years. And if it hadn’t been for the banders, you would have no clue. Looking for them in the daytime seems almost futile. They roost in the daytime on low branches, often around head-height. They fly up into dense tangles or sit on horizontal evergreen branches, often close to the trunk.
Sitting motionless in their cryptic colors and not much bigger than a sparrow, how many we walk past point-blank without noticing would probably be shocking! Every now and then one does get found and when made public it always causes a buzz. Just watching anyone seeing their first Saw-whet—or any other owl for that matter—will make you realize just how charismatic they are. They are certainly the gateway to birding for many.
Some suggest that all owl sightings should be kept quiet. Personally, I don’t agree with this. Conservation comes with numbers. No group of birds has the effect on people that owls do. Probably close to 20 years ago, a Saw-whet was found in a small spruce on Beach Avenue outside one of the motels. Of course, they are there all day when not disturbed. A number of locals got to see it and I still get reminders about it to this day. Better still, if there is a banding demonstration like in the good old days, you must go. Nothing gets universal gasps at first sight like this deadly beauty. No cuddly toy stands a chance. And if one winks at you, it must be love at first sight. ■