By Harold Fisher
Most Albertans can spend their entire lives in woodland habitat without ever seeing one of these charming little owls. Yet, they are one of the most common of our owl species.
The Northern Saw-whet Owl breeds in mature woodland habitat throughout Alberta. It is most common in the southern boreal forest, foothills and parkland regions. In the far northern boreal region it is replaced by the slightly larger resident Boreal Owl. It may be found in the wooded coulees and farmsteads of the prairie regions during migration. Most birds leave Alberta during the winter months, but each year a few hardy denizens seem to endure our winters here.
Saw-whet Owls are cavity nesters, often using tree holes created in past years by Northern Flickers or Pileated Woodpeckers. They will readily use nest boxes when they are available. These birds are nocturnal by nature and hide very effectively among dense foliage during the daytime, and as a result, rarely attract attention. Often the only clue that saw-whets are nesting nearby is the nighttime call of the male, a long monotonous whistled toot, toot, toot… The birds are usually nesting by early April, and a tap on the base of the nest tree will have the female peeking out of the cavity to identify the disturbance. The nest usually contains four to six eggs, which hatch after about four weeks of incubation. The young are on the wing by mid-June most years, are fed for several more weeks by the adults and are usually independent by mid-July.
The diet of saw-whets consists mostly of mice – voles, deer mice and jumping mice – but may also include shrews, small birds and insects. These birds are quite nomadic and may be quite abundant during high rodent years and relatively scarce at other times.
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is one of our smallest owls, weighing between 75 and 100 grams, about the size of a robin. It is avery quiet bird, and will often allow close approach if discovered during the daytime, and in some cases will even allow itself to be touched. Its status in Alberta appears secure at this time. This owl has been the subject of intense study in NorthAmerica during the last two decades and researchers are just now beginning to understand the mysteries of this charming little bird.