Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, October 7, 2022

Saw-whet Owls

Northern Saw-whet Owl 

On Tuesday morning, I was late leaving to babysit my grandson. My little dog Pip was not ready to come inside, so I rushed out to get her, no time to spare, when a barrage of curse words hit my ears—at least a dozen chickadees and both kinds of nuthatches were swearing away in the back of my yard. I didn’t have time to search out what had set them off, but this being the first week of October, I had a pretty good idea.  

At mid-morning, I arrived home to even more swearing. And just as I expected, hidden in the tall, dense vegetation behind my yard perched an adorable little Northern Saw-whet Owl, beleaguered by the cloud of even littler birds yelling at him from every direction. The owl was apparently more concerned about me and my camera—I could tell because he didn’t look at the chickadees at all, just me, so after I took a few photos, I went back in the house. 

Northern Saw-whet Owl

When I spotted my neighbor Jeanne, I brought her over so she could see it too, and as long as I was there anyway, I grabbed a few more photos. I also put out a text alert to some birding friends in case any of them wanted to see it. When my husband came home for lunch, I of course brought him to the owl, and this time I got a short cellphone recording of a few nuthatches and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet swearing at it, but again, we quickly left the little bird in peace.   

Northern Saw-whet Owl

About 2:15 or so, one of my friends who’d received my text message came, so I showed her where the owl had been, but no little birds were cussing, a grackle was now moving about in that branch, and the saw-whet was nowhere to be found. Well, actually it was still very close. A few hours later, a couple of neighbors strolled past with their dog after I’d mentioned that the owl had been there. They scrutinized all the trees as they walked down the path. Even without any chickadees to alert them, they got a great look at the little guy, now at eye level rather than overhead, just a short distance beyond where I’d seen it. They got phone photos and videos, which they showed me the next day.  

What made the little guy move? Had it become exasperated with the scolding chickadees? I had been working at my computer by the window for over two hours but hadn’t noticed people about, so I don’t think a person scared it off. The grackle may have sent it packing. Grackles and saw-whets both weigh from 2 ½ to 5 ounces, but even a single grackle on the smaller end of the weight spectrum, with its sturdy, pointed bill, would make a more dangerous adversary than the half-dozen or dozen chickadees that balance a saw-whet weight-wise.  

Saw-whets migrate through Duluth in huge numbers, though most pass through without people noticing them. Every autumn, banders at Hawk Ridge capture from 600–1,500 owls, the vast majority of them saw-whets, mostly in October. Just about every block in Duluth probably hosts at least one or two saw-whets for at least a day or two every October, but the tiny predators do their darnedest to keep from being noticed.   

How can you luck into seeing one? I’ve been birding so long that I’ve trained myself, without even realizing it, to key in on bird sounds even when I’m busy with other things. It takes a kind of mindfulness to notice angry-sounding birds, especially chickadees, which vocalize a lot whether an owl is there or not. Paying attention to their everyday sounds helps us hear the difference when chickadees start making angry dee-dee-dee calls—the more dee notes, the higher the threat level. Paying attention to those notes has led my eyes to both saw-whet and Boreal Owls.  

Black-capped Chickadee saying naughty words to a Boreal Owl
I photographed this Boreal Owl in the Sax-ZIm Bog in February 2020. Notice the chickadee scolding it. Chickadees and other birds virtually never perch below a predator. They're much safer scolding from above.

Crows, jays, or robins making angry calls indicates that a larger owl or other predator may be nearby. Here in Duluth over the years, what is called a murder of crows has led me to Barred, Great Horned, Great Gray, and Long-eared Owls right in my own backyard.  

Barred Owl

Great Horned Owl being mobbed by crows
This Great Horned Owl is fairly hidden next to the trunk. Remembering that smart birds stay above the level of an owl may help you find it.

Superstitious people have long associated owls with death. My favorite explanation comes from the 1894 Zoological Recreations by W.J. Broderip: "[Owls’] retired habits, the desolate places that are their favorite haunts, their hollow hootings, fearful shriekings, serpent-like hissings, and coffin-maker snappings, have helped to give them a bad eminence."   

I’ve seen a lot of owls in my life and not one was associated with any human’s death—owls don’t have time for such nonsense. They usually manage to go about their daily, and nightly, lives no one the wiser. When we luck into finding one in our own backyard, that’s reason for joy and delight. Well, unless we happen to be a mouse or a chickadee.  

Northern Saw-whet Owl holding dead mouse
I photographed this little saw-whet while leading a bird walk at the Western Waterfront Trail in spring 2016. The predator is holding a white-footed mouse, but we can see only its feet beneath the owl.