The Owl Pages

Northern Saw-whet Owl ~ Aegolius acadicus


The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a very small owl with no ear tufts. The Latinised word acadius refers to Acadia, now Nova Scotia, where European explorers first discovered this owl. The common name "Saw-whet" comes from the unique call of this owl.

Photo Gallery (13 pictures)

  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl

Sound Gallery

Typical call - Wisconsin, USA. © John Feith.
Alarmed - Los Angeles County, California, USA. March 2015. CC Lance A. M. Benner.


Description: The facial disc is brownish with a whitish zone around the eyes, forming radial white streaks towards the edge of the disc, and with a blackish spot between the base of the bill and the orange-yellow eyes. The bill and cere are blackish. The disc does not have a dark rim but does have a narrow edge of light and dark spots. The rest of the head is warm rusty-brown or grey-brown, and densely covered with white shaft-streaks, especially on the forehead. The mantle and the rest of the upperparts are rusty brown with white spots. Flight feathers are spotted white. The relatively short tail normally has three rows of white spots on both webs of the rectrices.
Lower parts are whitish with broad reddish-buff streaks. Toes are slightly feathered with dark horn claws with blackish tips.
Juveniles of this species are chocolate-brown above with underparts pale brownish or cinnamon-buff. The eyebrows, forehead and lores are white, forming a pale "X" on the dark face.

Size: Length 17-21.9cm. Wing length 125-146mm. Tail length 65-73mm. Weight 54-124g. Females are normally larger than males.

Habits: Northern Saw-whet Owls are strictly Nocturnal, with activity beginning at late dusk. During the day, they depend on plumage for camouflage when roosting in foliage, usually close to the ground. When threatened, a Saw-whet Owl will elongate its body in order to appear like a tree branch or bump, often bringing one wing around to the front of the body.
Flight is rapid, laboured, and undulating.

Voice: The Northern Saw-whet Owl vocalises mostly during the breeding season (usually between March and May). The primary courtship call is a monotonous, whistled "hoop", emitted at about 1.5 notes per second which may last for several hours without a break. Territorial calls are series of short clear notes. The Saw-whet Owl's name comes from the "skiew" call that is made when alarmed. This sound has a resemblance to the whetting of a saw. When the male flies to the nest with food it gives a rapid staccato burst of toots, and the female responds with a soft "swEE".

Hunting & Food: These Owls hunt mainly at dusk and dawn and most often use the "sit and wait" tactic to drop down onto prey on the ground from low hunting perches. They will also range through wooded areas and hunt in heavy shrub cover. When prey is plentiful, a Saw-whet Owl will kill as many as 6 mice in rapid succession, without consuming any of them. The excess food is cached in safe places and, in winter, is thawed out later by "brooding" the frozen carcass. When food is plentiful, it is common for only the head of each prey to be eaten.
Northern Saw-whet Owls feed almost entirely on small mammals, Deer mice being the primary prey, followed by shrews and voles. Other mammals include squirrels, moles, bats, flying squirrels, and house mice. Small birds are sometimes taken and include swallows, sparrows, chickadees, and kinglets. Larger birds such as Northern Cardinal and Rock Dove can be killed by one of these small Owls. Frogs and insects are also part of their diet.
Pellets are very small and dark grey, about 1.9cm by 1.3cm and are ejected with great difficulty, usually with a great deal of twisting of the body and head.

Breeding: Because of their nomadic nature it is unlikely that pair bonds are permanent or that birds often return to the same nest site. Males sing their territorial song mainly in late-March and April. After a female has been attracted to a male by his song, he will fly in circles above her while calling, or he will take her directly to the nest site he has located (again, while calling). The male then lands near her and begins a complex series of bobbing and shuffling as he inches towards her. Often, the male has a mouse in its bill and offers it to the female.
Northern Saw-whet Owls nest in old woodpecker cavities, (primarily those made by Pileated Woodpeckers or Northern Flickers) or in natural cavities. They will also take to nest boxes quite readily. Nest trees are often dead and nest heights average 4 to 6 metres above ground. Nesting occurs between March and July.
Clutch sizes range from 3 to 7 eggs (average 5-6) laid at periods of 1 to 3 days, but usually 2. Eggs average 30x25 mm. The female does all incubation and the male brings food to her and defends the nesting area. The incubation period is 21 to 28 days. Young fledge at 4 to 5 weeks, and may leave the nest individually every 1 to 2 days, until they have all left. The young owls are cared for by the parents for some weeks after they leave the nest. Sexual maturity is reached at 9-10 months old.
A pair will raise a single brood; in years when food is abundant, they will nest slightly earlier in the season.

Mortality: Captive Owls have lived for over 10 years, but mortality in the wild is likely relatively high. They compete with Boreal Owls, starlings, and squirrels for nest cavities, and are preyed upon by larger Owls, martens, Cooper's Hawks, and Northern Goshawks.

Habitat: Northern Saw-whet Owls inhabit coniferous and deciduous forests, with thickets of second-growth or shrubs. They occur mainly in forests with deciduous trees, where woodpeckers create cavities for nest sites. Breeding habitat is usually swampy or wet, rather than dry. Riparian habitat is often preferred.

Distribution: Found from southeast Alaska and southern Canada south to southwest Mexico. Winters irregularly south to southern USA.

Range of Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)
Range of the Northern Saw-whet Owl Aegolius acadicus

Status: Not threatened or endangered. Locally frequent.

Original Description: Gmelin, Johann Friedrich. 1788. Systema Naturae, 1, Pt.1, p. 296.

References: (may contain affiliate links)
Boyer and Hume. 1991. "Owls of the World". BookSales Inc.
Campbell, Wayne. 1994. "Know Your Owls". Axia Wildlife.
Heintzelman, Donald S.. 1984. "Guide to Owl Watching in North America". Dover Publications.
König, Claus & Weick, Friedhelm. 2008. "Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World (Second Edition)". Yale University Press.
König, Weick and Becking. 1999. "Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World". Yale University Press.
Long, Kim. 1998. "Owls: A Wildlife Handbook". Johnson Books.
Aegolius acadicus at Xeno-canto.

See also: Other owls from North America, Genus: Aegolius.

Page by Deane Lewis. Last updated 2020-11-02. Copyright Information.