| Mar 09, 2006

Nature Reflections

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Nature Reflections - March 9, 2006

Late night visitor

by Jean Griffin

Last night I had a visitor - well, it didn’t really come to visit me. Rather, it came to see what it could find to eat. It was a Northern Saw-whet Owl. This tiny owl, no bigger than my hand, was looking for a vole or flying squirrel that might be feeding under the bird feeders. I know Danny Meadow Mouse (more properly the Meadow Vole) has been getting fat by eating the seeds, particularly under the niger seed feeder.

While I often see the vole in the daytime, I expect it is out even more in the night, which is when this little owl hunts. Whether or not the owl saw or caught the vole, I don’t know, but hope it was able to find food. Several years ago I found a dead one under my porch, which most probably had not survived because of lack of food. When the vole population crashes in one of its cycle of numbers, life can be difficult for the owls that depend on them for food.


Owl Woods on Amherst Island southwest of Kingston is usually a popular place for bird watchers, because it is known to be a place that these owls and other larger owls will gather in winter until it is time to disperse to their breeding grounds. There, Saw-Whets can often be found perched low in a cedar tree, and quite approachable. This year there have been very few owls seen there because the vole population is in one of its low population cycles. Would my visitor be one of those that might normally have found food and shelter there? Or now in early March, is it passing through as it is time for this and other owls to start spreading out to their breeding grounds?

Silent most of the year except during the breeding season, it is named for the call it gives when alarmed - which resembles the sound of a saw being whetted. The primary courtship call is a monotonous, whistled "hoop", emitted at about 1.5 notes per second and which it may keep up for several hours without a break. The male when bringing food to the nest gives a rapid staccato burst of ‘toots’, with the female responding with a soft ‘swee’.

Besides voles or flying squirrels, this owl may feed on mice, bats, and sometimes small birds, as well as larger insects. It is reported that when prey is plentiful, the owl may kill as many as six voles or mice in rapid succession, caching the excess. In winter, a frozen carcass may be thawed out by ‘brooding’. It is common when food is plentiful that only the head of the prey may be eaten. Like other owls, bones and undigestible parts of the prey are ejected as pellets. The pellet is regurgitated with what appears to be great difficulty, with a great deal of twisting of the head and body.

This owl requires a cavity, either a natural cavity or one that has been made by a woodpecker or flicker, in which to nest, competing with Boreal Owls, Starlings, or squirrels for these. The Saw-whets can themselves be predated by larger owls, as well as Martens, Cooper’s Hawks or Northern Goshawks. In captivity they have been known to live up to eight years, but in the wild, the average life span is probably much shorter.

It was a delight to see this little visitor.

Observations: Share your observations, call Jean at 268-2518 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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