Part 1 of this column appeared in the Nov. 24 edition of the Interior News.
Last week I mentioned that there is still lots to learn about northern saw-whet owls. However, we do know that they breed here, and peak breeding occurs in March through July.
At first, the males bring the food, while the female tends the nestlings. Not all the food is eaten at one meal, but the female keeps the nest nice and clean. About halfway through, the roles reverse with the females going off hunting while the males look after feeding the young. The male’s housecleaning habits leave a lot to be desired, so by the time the young leave, the nest it is foul with fecal droppings and body parts of prey items.
The fledged juveniles have dark gray-brown heads and backs with a conspicuous, triangular-shaped tuft of white hairs stretching from the top of the beak up part-way above the eyes. Their bellies are a bright buffy/sandy brown. Their huge yellow eyes almost seem to fill their faces making them adorable to look at.
Saw-whets – if you can find one – are extremely tame during daylight and you can even walk right up to them. At night however, these tiny, ferocious, predators become fearless. They prey primarily on mice but also capture small songbirds. Once the songbirds discover a saw-whet hiding, they will mob the owl until it moves on, so listen for songbirds kicking up a big fuss and maybe you will find an owl in its hiding place.
Once I was out on my driveway trying the play-back call of the saw-whet when suddenly, one attacked me and flew right to within a couple of inches of my face. I know they nest here, and I have encountered juveniles on our property sitting on low tree branches less than two feet from me. The possible location of a nest may be determined by the amount of whitewash on the ground.
Numbers of saw-whet owls tend to fluctuate from year to year. However, you can almost predict when the numbers will be high by observing the cone crops. The more cones present, the more food there is for the small rodents and seed-eating birds. In turn, more rodents means there is more food for the saw-whets.
Judging by the huge spruce cone crop we have right now we should all be watching for saw-whet wls in the coming year.