Northern Saw-whet OwlAegolius acadicus (Gmelin)
Status Uncommon resident. Breeds. Seldom seen but probably not as rare as it seems to be. It normally inhabits wooded areas remote from settlement and, being nocturnal, spends the daylight hours in seclusion, often hidden in dark thickets or tree cavities. Sometimes in winter, particularly during periods of extreme cold, small numbers appear suddenly, one here and one there, about farmyards, villages and even in towns or cities; whether these are residents forced from their normal habitat by hunger or wanderers from farther north is not known, but generally they are found weakened from starvation or dead. Parties from Acadia University have shown that some of these owls migrate out of or through the province, with observations gathered by nocturnal mist-netting and banding on Bon Portage Island; 72 were banded during October 1981. One owl on Sable Island on 16 August 1963 suggests movement earlier in the season. Sightings between 8 March and 19 April in places where Saw-whets do not nest may have been of returning migrants.
Description Length: 19-22 cm. Adults: Dark cinnamon-brown on back, flecked and mottled with white; forehead and crown light or dark brown about evenly divided, giving the impression of stripes; facial disc light gray with radiating brown streaks; eyes yellow; bill black; feet and toes light gray, almost white; and breast and belly white, streaked with rufous. Juveniles: Chocolate-brown with white "eyebrows" and rufous lower breast and belly.
Breeding Nest: In a hollow tree, usually the old nest of a flicker. Sometimes the usual lining of decayed wood fibre matted with owl's feathers is supplemented with a small quantity of soft, dry grass. It is placed at heights usually ranging 2-12 m, site availability being the determining factor. Eggs: 4-7, usually 5; dull white and rounded ovate. Laying begins in early April. Seven nests have been examined, five of which I shall describe in detail: one was 12 m up a dead pine at Albany, Annapolis County. On 27 May 1919 it contained six young about ready to fly. The old bird refused to leave and was removed manually. The nest tree was on open, burned land remote from settlement, and the nest cavity had apparently been excavated by a flicker. On 31 May 1943 a second nest was discovered at Greenfield, Kings County, in a very rotten spruce stub 2.5 m from the ground, in a semi-cleared woodlot surrounded by evergreen woods. It contained four well-fledged young, and a fifth was perched on a log nearby. When the nest was discovered neither parent was in evidence, but when it was visited a few hours later at twilight, both adult birds were present, showing normal anxiety. The location of the third nest was exceptional it was placed in a partially dead maple, 3 m above the sidewalk in a residential section of Wolfville, occupying a hole originally used by flickers. On 25 May 1954 the young were about ready to fly and, in spite of their vulnerable position, at least some got off safely. The fourth nest was examined on 26 May 1966 at Springville, Pictou County. It was located in a very decayed yellow birch, in a cavity originally used by a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, and contained two young. The late date and the small size of the clutch indicated a second nesting. The fifth nest, also at Springville, contained seven eggs early in April 1967. The birds had used a wooden box constructed by Harry Brennan, which he had erected in a clearing near his home.
Range Breeds across North America, from southern Alaska to Nova Scotia, and in the east as far south as Maryland. In winter some wander considerably south of the breeding range.
Remarks The Saw-whet is the smallest owl in Nova Scotia. Its name is derived from the sound of one of its calls, which is said to be like a saw being filed, or "whetted". I have never heard this owl give any call but one, and it did not sound like a saw being filed but like tang-tang-tang-tang, with a metallic quality. The calls were deliberate, continuing monotonously for a considerable time. After a brief pause it would start again. I have heard it at all hours of the night and at evening twilight. At dusk on 8 March 1950 one was heard calling at Gaspereau, Kings County, from an orchard of old apple trees. A flashlight was used to locate the performer. As the light drew near, the owl stopped calling as though suspicious of danger. However, after much searching I discovered it sitting on the low, dead branch of a large spruce on the edge of the orchard. When focused in the centre of the beam at a distance of about 3 m, it drew in its feathers until it seemed mostly head, with a very slender body attached, its facial expression like that of an inquisitive miniature monkey.
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