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Bird of the Month

March: Northern Saw-whet Owl

Learn about a different species of bird each month and find out how you can support birds along their migratory paths.

Bird of the Month - Northern Saw-whet Owl

You can learn about a different species of bird each month! Join Dave Mehlman, director of The Nature Conservancy's Migratory Bird Program, as he answers questions about these fascinating creatures.

How are these birds chosen? Each month, we will feature a bird species from a photo taken by a member of our online Flickr™ community.

March's bird of the month — the northern saw-whet owl — was taken by Flickr User: newfoundlander61. See this photo on Flickr™ and in the header above.

Learn more about the Northern Saw-whet Owl

Q: Owls have eyes facing forward on their heads instead of on the sides of their heads, like most birds. Why might that be?

Dave Mehlman:That’s probably THE most distinctive feature of owls! Since owls are aerial predators, they benefit from having very good depth perception (much like we do). Having the eyes close together on the front of the head is essential to having this depth perception. It is also the case that owls have very good hearing and that the “faces” of owls help collect sound and funnel it to their ears, which also helps in estimating the distance to and location of prey.

Q: What’s the range of the northern saw-whet owl? How likely is somebody living in North America — say, in a city or a suburb — likely to see one?

Dave Mehlman: The northern saw-whet owl breeds in the northern hardwood and boreal forests of the United States and southern Canada, with “fingers” of distribution in the higher elevation forests of the Rocky mountains, Sierra Nevada, Appalachian mountains, and Sierra Madre of Mexico. Most of the northern breeding birds are migratory and winter at lower elevations in the U.S. Although this is a fairly common owl, it is seldom seen due to its nocturnal habits and its use of somewhat inaccessible habitats in all seasons. However, some birds, particularly in winter, can be found in pine groves and other places near cities, so one should always be on the lookout.

Q: I’ve read that the northern saw-whet owl has a unique way of defending itself when threatened: It elongates its body, making it look like a tree branch, and that it brings one wing around its body and sits very still. Why might that behavior be effective against predators?

Dave Mehlman: This is a fascinating bit of saw-whet owl behavior, but, I will be honest, I have no clue as to why it would be effective against a predator—maybe it’s like an owl cloaking device? Since I can’t answer that, let me point out that this owl gets its name from its call, which purportedly sounds like the whetting of a saw. I don’t know about you, but I personally have no idea what a saw being whetted sounds like, other than that it must sound like the call of a saw-whet owl!

Q: When you talk to people about owls, they eventually start talking about their scat. What’s up with this scat? Why is it so distinctive?

Dave Mehlman: Actually, in my experience, almost all biologists eventually end up talking about the scat of his or her favorite animal—must be a biologist thing. In the case of owls, however, we’re actually more interested in what we call their “pellets,” which are the indigestible bits left that the owl regurgitates later. These are incredibly valuable for study, because from the pellets, you can figure out exactly what the owl has been eating. Normally, pellets consist of hair, bones, feathers, etc., which can be used to identify accurately the owl’s prey items.

Q: The northern saw-whet owl is doing well by conservation’s standards of measuring threatened or endangered species. But aren’t there other owl species that aren’t doing so well?

Dave Mehlman: Almost all owl species are difficult to study and to assess their population status because of their secretive and nocturnal behavior. It’s true that all data we have indicate that the northern saw-whet owl is doing OK, except perhaps for small, isolated populations on islands or mountain-tops. However, several other species of owls in North America are not doing so well. These include the spotted owl, listed as Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in most of its range, and the flammulated, elf, and short-eared owls, all of which are considered Birds of Conservation Concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Check back next month to learn about another species of bird. Your bird photo could be featured as the Bird of the Month! Submit your photo to our online Flickr community for consideration. Find out how »

How You Can Help Migratory Birds

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Photo: Northern Saw-whet Owl. Photo © Flickr User: newfoundlander61.

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