Photo: Donna Martin saw-whet owl

Answering the call

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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What’s beeping in that tree?

When I teach people how to call for owls, it is generally the barred owl’s “who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all.” It’s great fun to make that call, especially in groups, and barreds are the most responsive of all our owls. And since they are year-round residents, you have much more of a chance to see them in any season.

Yet there are other owls you can call in as well. The tiny Northern saw-whet owl is generally absent from late fall to sometime in March, depending on the winter. Their return trip north is not always perfectly timed. Sometimes they come back a bit too early and have a hard time finding food — especially if there is a heavy layer of ice or crusty snow.

They generally feed on small rodents, especially deer mice. If prey is free to roam unscathed under the ice, you’ll often find saw-whets near feeders, where they can pick up mice that they find feeding on what the birds have knocked to the ground.

The tiny saw-whet is truly one of our most beautiful birds. It is only 7-8” long, and really looks more like a cuddly child’s toy than a bird of prey. Adults are brown with white spotting on the back, with the same colours on the flecked chest. They have an overall whiteness to the face, and what looks to be a white V on their forehead. They are undoubtably an owl, though, having a large head, flat face, and strong talons. The eyes are proportionately large with a yellow iris.

Saw-whets are nocturnal, but you can see them during the day. As with the barred owl, an easy way to find them is to listen for other birds, such as blue jays and crows, kicking up a racket. Then go see what they’re on about. If you’re lucky, it will be a saw-whet.

The call of a saw-whet is a constant beep — like the warning sound a truck makes when backing up, or repeatedly playing a “C” note on a recorder. Usually, I just whistle a beep. It is a slight eerie sound, though in a good way — another sign of wildness still around us. They were calling around Tea Hill in March. It is a distinct call that is easy to recognize.

The name saw-whet comes from the sound this owl makes — said to remind you (in older times) of someone sharpening a handsaw on a whetstone. Nowadays, we might just call it a “truck warning sound” owl, since most of us have no experience with either handsaws or whetstones.

This woodland bird nests in a tree cavity, another excellent reason to have a good amount of dead and dying trees in your forest. The hooked beak is for ripping apart mice bodies, not for excavating holes. Instead, they mainly rely on old nesting cavities made by woodpeckers. They will also occupy nest boxes, so that is an alternative if you have no dead trees nearby. But nest boxes should be a last resort, as they have to be cleaned each year.

Saw-whets are wonderful birds to have around and we should do all that we can to encourage them. That means having healthy woodlands, with trees large enough to have potential cavities for hairy woodpeckers and flickers. If you’re lucky enough to encounter a saw-whet, you’ll be glad there are forests around.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.