A northern saw-whet perches outside the nest at the author’s home in Palmer. Photo by Fredrik Norrsell.
At one time people thought northern saw-whet owls were rare. They’re not. They are just tiny—only seven and a half inches tall—and nocturnal, so few people see them. However, in early March, you can often hear the rapid whet-whet-whet of a male saw-whet establishing his territory and trying to attract a mate. These loud, repetitive calls sometimes continue all night.
Last spring, my husband, photographer Fredrik Norrsell, and I had the pleasure of having a family of northern saw-whet owls grow up in our backyard. Over the course of sleepless nights from April through June, we watched and photographed these little owls raising their family.
On April 1, we were enjoying the sun on the porch when Fredrik noticed a sleepy head sticking out of our nesting box. A female saw-whet owl had moved in.
While she was busy incubating eggs, the male delivered a sizable collection of shrews and red-backed voles, along with a single, small bird, to her doorstep each night. We couldn’t tell the difference between the two owls by sight, but we learned to distinguish them by their actions. The female left the nest only once each night, in early evening, and returned within a few minutes, without prey. The male seldom entered the nest. He simply dropped food into the nesting cavity and flew off.
By early May, the 28-day incubation period ended, and the eggs hatched. Mom stayed in the box feeding the chicks, while dad provided for the family. Without fail, he announced his arrival with a soft, whet-whet call.
With hungry owlets to feed, both parents began hunting at night. On June 3, Fredrik witnessed—and photographed—the parents returning with 16 voles and shrews in the four hours between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. Four hungry teenagers with feathers ate every last bite.
The saw-whet owls tolerated us without fear as we went about our daily lives. They would often perch near us as Fredrik photographed them. We never observed an adverse reaction to the flash or our presence. One evening, six friends and neighbors sat quietly in the woods, binoculars in hand, hoping for the owl to return from hunting. Our 10-year-old neighbor, Raven, often came over to sit silently in the forest waiting for a glimpse of the owl. How many kids have this kind of patience and connection to nature these days? I wondered.
On June 6, a small round head poked out of the nesting box. A pair of bright yellow eyes, with big dark pupils, peered out at the world. It was our first glimpse of a baby northern saw-whet owl. Soon, I could recognize individual babies by their distinctive white facial markings and significantly different sizes. The eggs had been laid several days apart, so some siblings were markedly older than others. Baby saw-whets have an intriguing little dance. They stick their heads out of the box, and bob forward and back with a rhythmic, break-dance-like motion. I later learned the youngsters were learning to focus their eyes.
By June 16, there was only one fledgling left in the nest. Its siblings were somewhere in the nearby woods. The female had flown the coop. (On exceptionally good vole years, she might even find another mate and start a new family.) The male would continue to feed the fledglings for the next month, while teaching them to hunt.
Late on the night of June 24, Fredrik found the owlets hiding in the forest by listening for their begging calls. Four fist-sized balls of rust-colored fluff were hanging out close to each other in dense brush, a hundred yards from their nesting cavity. Another good way to find owls was to watch the antics of other birds. Robins would often gang up on saw-whet owls and dive bomb them, trying to drive them away.
After the season was over, we rarely saw our family of owls again. Late one September evening, a saw-whet flew low over us, as if checking in. Again, in late January, we received a short visit on a branch just outside our front door. Through February and into early March, we occasionally saw signs of saw-whet owls.
We built more nesting boxes and waited, like expectant grandparents, for the birds to settle in. But March 2020 was a different year. When male saw-whets were announcing their territories and attracting mates, our yard was covered in three feet of snow with a hard crust on top. Hunting was poor. The saw-whets nested elsewhere.
We sorely missed the wild nature they brought to our yard. And yet we continued to spend long summer evenings watching the light and listening to the sounds of the forest, waiting for their return.