Spunky Owl

by Beverly J. Letchworth | Feb 1, 2024 | 0 comments

Northern Saw-whet Owl sitting on tree branch
Northern Saw-whet Owl. Photo © Allen Shank.

Midnight on a spring night, only a sliver of moon overhead, the forest is dark. A small bird of prey, a Northern Saw-whet Owl, perches on a tree limb, listening and watching. He has excellent vision in low light, but he can also hunt by hearing alone. Only 7 inches (18 cm) in length, with an oversized head, bold yellow eyes, and a cat-like face, he’s been resting all day in an evergreen tree. But now he’s eager to be out and about. It’s time for hunting. He’s hungry.

Tonight he hears a whisper of sound below him on the ground. He knows where it’s coming from. Dropping from his perch and swooping down to a patch of dried leaves, he grabs a mouse with his talons and soars back to his perch to eat. Although he’s one of the smallest owls in North America, there’s nothing timid about him. He’s spunky and skilled at hunting and proves a fierce predator to the tiny mice and voles he preys upon.

Later, from his perch, he begins to call a high-pitched “too-too-too.” He will continue to call for the rest of the night. With this call, he’s trying to attract a female and also announcing that this section of forest is his territory and his alone.

He makes many different calls besides his “too, too” song: whines, squeaks, twitterings, ksew and tssst sounds, up to at least eleven vocalizations. But in spring the “too, too, too” call is his important song of the season.

And it works. Soon a female joins him. They make their nest in an abandoned woodpecker hole, some 50 feet (15 m) above ground in a large tree. While his mate stays in the nest for almost a month incubating their five eggs, he has the job of hunting for food for himself and for her. He does not fail in his responsibility.

The young hatch. His mate keeps the nest very tidy, cleaning up the remains after eating and getting rid of fecal matter. But when the chicks are eighteen days old, she leaves the family, not to return. Now he feeds the chicks by himself but does not tend the nest. As the days pass, a mess begins to accumulate. By the time the young are strong enough to leave the nest two weeks later, the nest has a layer of feces, pellets, and rotting prey parts.

He and his fledglings stay together near the nest for another month, and he continues to feed them until they finally become independent and head out on their own.

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