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The Northern Saw-Whet Owl, what a name!
It apparently came from early on bird observers who seemed to think that this little owl's mating call resembled the sound made by a saw being sharpened by a whetstone.
Modern day ornithologists describe the song as being a repeated low, whistled toot such as “poo poo poo” or “toit toit toit.” In addition you might hear a wheezy, rising, catlike screech “shweeee,” a soft nasal bark “keew” or “pew” and a soft whining “eeeooi.”
In any event, this smallest of all the eastern owls, is almost totally silent until late winter and early spring, when like everyone else, the male starts feeling his cheerios because of the upcoming mating season.
Probably the best description of this 8-inch long bird with a 17-inch wide wingspan is a small brownish owl with yellow-orange eyes, a short tail, and a big bullhead with a white V between the eyes.
The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is so nocturnal and hides so well during the day, usually near a stream in evergreens and the thickest of vines, so it is seldom seen. For instance, I have never seen one in the wild, but one of my sons, John, on Oct. 17, 2010, saw one on some property I own, just north of the Trailwood Lake Campground, in Shelby County. The accompanying photograph is of a captive Saw-Whet that was being taken care of by a raptor-rehab program.
All of the old books on ornithology say that this owl is non-migratory. It was thought that they just sort of wandered around depending on wherever there was a good supply of rodents, readily available. However due to information from numerous banding stations, it has now been determined that they do indeed migrate in October and November. Not only that but this fragile, small and delicate bird, actually migrates thousands of miles and much farther South than once thought, reaching as far as Alabama.
The key is to find one or more in the daytime, because they are not too alarmed when roosting and will allow you to walk right up to them.
It is currently believed that the Northern Saw-Whet Owl is much more numerous than once thought. Because their daytime haunts are so difficult to penetrate with the human eye and these little owls are so reluctant to move at all, until it is very dark, the actual numbers still may not be known.
The Northern Saw-Whet Owl has not been found nesting in Kentucky, but probably does, since it has been found nesting in Tennessee.
The nest is in a cavity, 14-60 feet above the ground usually in an abandoned Northern Flicker hole and occasionally in an abandoned Pileated Woodpecker hole or a man-made birdhouse.
The female lays 4-7 white eggs and mostly incubates them for 21-28 days. The young are fed a steady diet of mostly mammals. An adult will usually appear at the cavity opening when the tree is tapped. However, during incubation an adult will not leave the cavity until actually lifted out.
So get out from October-February in the late autumn/winter months and diligently search out places filled with mostly evergreens and vine covered woods. If you are so lucky as to find one of these gentle little owls, take great joy in the fact, that not many humans have ever seen the Northern Saw-Whet Owl in the great outdoors.