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BirdNote®: Saw-whet Owls Hoot And Hoot

Air Date: Week of

Saw-whet owls are nocturnal and roost in dense forest. (Photo: Gregg Thompson)

At less than three ounces, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl is one of the smallest owls in North America. But this tiny bird’s repetitive call, which sounds much like a vehicle backing up, can break through even the deepest slumber. BirdNote’s Mary McCann tells us more about the Northern Saw-Whet Owl and its autumn migration.



CURWOOD: It’s the season of Halloween and the Day of the Dead, and that might have people thinking about ghosts and goblins. But for BirdNote®’s Mary McCann it’s the season for owls. And far from spooky the tiny Saw-whet Owl is just 8.5 inches long and weighs less than a stick of butter.


[Advertising call of Northern Saw-whet Owl recorded by D. Ross]

MCCANN: This past summer, a man trying to sleep got really annoyed with his neighbor on the other side of the woods who, he thought, kept backing up a big truck. The next day he grumbled, “What were you doing? It kept me up most of the night!” “Oh, you musta heard the Saw-whet Owl!” the neighbor said.

[Repeat advertising call of Northern Saw-whet Owl recorded by D. Ross]

Named for what, to some, sounds like a saw being sharpened on a stone, Northern Saw-whet Owls are common in forests across southern Canada and the northern US. At this time of year, many move southward, making a large concentration especially in the region of the Great Lakes.

The Saw-whet owl averages eight inches in length, about the same size as the common robin. (Photo: Dave Wendelken)

To our ear, the “advertising” call of the male, made mostly in spring and summer, sounds awfully repetitive. But researchers think female Saw-whets hear variety. See if you can. Here are two males – listen carefully to the pacing of their hoots:

Here’s the first [recorded by D. Ross].

Here’s the second [recorded by G.A. Keller].
Some give a prelude to their advertising call [recorded by T.G. Sander].

In the fall, the birds make a “skew” call [recorded by S. Weidensaul].

And here’s a “twitter” call with a snap of the bill [recorded by W.W.H. Gunn]

Quite a variety for one of North America’s smallest owls, the Northern Saw-whet…

[Advertising call, recorded by G.A. Keller]


Written by Chris Peterson
Sounds of the Northern Saw-whet provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. First advertising call recorded by D. Ross. Second advertising call recorded by G.A. Keller. Prelude to advertising call recorded by T.G. Sander. Skew call recorded by S. Weidensaul. Twitter call recorded by W.W.H. Gunn.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2005-2018 Tune In to Nature.org October 2018
Narrator: Mary McCann

CURWOOD: For photos of the adorable Saw-whet owl head on over to our website, it’s a hoot!



Learn more on the Birdnote website

The Saw-whet Owl – The Cornell Lab of Ornithology


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