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Northern Saw-whet Owl Migration

Cool Nights...Cool Little Owl!

Adult male Northern Saw-whet Owls weigh only about as much as an American Robin.  (c) Scott Comings

In late fall, cold fronts come through our area and something really neat happens! What is so neat about the oncoming winter you may ask? Well, when we have these conditions this time of year, we also have lots of northern saw-whet owls passing through as part of their fall migration.

Saw-whet owls are cute little creatures that look like something right out of Disney. They are about seven inches long, with a reddish-brown back, a white belly, and reddish streaks on the breast. They are attracted to stands of conifers (cone-bearing trees) and are strictly nocturnal (active at night). During the day they like to roost (rest) among these trees, usually close to the end of the branch.

In Rhode Island the saw-whet owls eat mostly house and white-footed mice, catching them with their large talons (claws). After the catch, the owl returns to a tree and proceeds to eat the mouse by ripping it into small chunks. Owls cannot separate the meat from the fur and bones thus later on they regurgitate a pellet, which is the undigested fur wrapped around bone, much like a hairball for a cat.

Although approaching a saw-whet is easy because they tend to stay put, finding one is quite challenging due to their stillness and camouflage. In fact, the difficulty in locating individuals of this species has obscured information about their numbers and distribution. And, until an extensive monitoring effort began in 1991, very little was known about the migration ecology (how this species behaves during migration) of saw-whet owls in the northeast. We are just starting to learn where saw-whet owls migrate and how the population of these owls changes from year to year.

Historically, ornithologists (bird experts) believed this species to be relatively uncommon in southern New England; only a few individuals are present each year in Rhode Island during migration and some years none at all. However, recent efforts by biologists in a series of banding stations (Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia) have shown saw-whet owls to be quite common (capturing over 5,000 saw-whets in the last ten years).

So at this time of year, be sure to look for the saw-whet owl (especially when driving at night), for it is one of the treasures of fall.

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