The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 7, 2005


Saw-whet owl

(Drawing by Louis Agassiz Fuertes)
Janus was the Roman god for whom the month of January is named. He was the god of beginnings and endings, and gates and doorways. He was depicted with a double-faced head so he could look forward into the future and back into the past. Owls remind me of Janus because of their ability to turn their heads and look in opposite directions without the slightest change in any other body position. It seems appropriate for this Janus-like bird to launch the Biodiversity Corner at the start of a new year.

Name: Aegolius acadicus or Northern Saw-whet owl. Aegolius is Latin for bird of prey, and acadicus refers to Arcadia, the early name for Nova Scotia where the saw-whet owl was first documented by European explorers. The common name, "saw-whet," refers to the "skiew" sound the owl makes when alarmed — it supposedly sounds like the whetting of a saw. It's only a myth that owls are wise. Perhaps that has something to do with why a group of owls is called a parliament.

When and where seen: This little owl was spotted by Jean Keskulla late in the day on Thanksgiving Day, 2004. It was in a rhododendron bush where it seemed to be trying to sleep. Jean was scanning the area for something unusual because other birds in the yard were "in a fit," indicating the presence of some kind of danger. Saw-whet owls are not often seen because they are active after dark and in the daylight they tend to roost in very dense vegetation. They are also silent for most of the year. Jean has heard them a couple of times, once during February.

Distinguishing characteristics: This is New England's smallest owl; the adult is about seven or eight inches from tip of beak to tip of tail and weighs only three ounces. Here are some size comparisons: the great horned owl is 22 inches long and weighs around three pounds; the northern cardinal is about eight to nine inches long, and the American robin is about ten inches. The saw-whet owl with its short tail, large rounded head, and overall short stature has a kind of stunted look and yet like all owls it actually has a long flexible neck with 14 vertebrae which allow it to turn its head 270 degrees. It has big yellow eyes and the typical owl-like round face with white and brown radial markings on the facial disk. Overall, the plumage is reddish brown with a lot of white streaks down the front and about the head including the forehead. The bill is black.

Voice: In the early spring it makes a sound like a series of rapid whistles or toots, not to be confused with hoots. Like many other species of owls, the saw-whet owl does not hoot. The folklore of the Montagnais people of Quebec claims that the saw-whet owl was once the largest owl in the world and overly proud of its voice. It attempted to imitate the roar of a grand waterfall and was humbled by the Great Spirit who turned it into a tiny owl with a song that sounds like dripping water.

Food chain: The favorite foods of the saw-whet owl are small mammals like voles, mice and shrews but they also take small birds and insects. They themselves are preyed upon by larger owls, martens, Cooper's hawks, and northern goshawks.

References:; Owls Aren't Wise and Bats Aren't Blind, by Warner Shedd; Hawks and Owls of North America, by Donald Heintzelman.

Submissions for the Biodiversity Corner are encouraged from everyone. Send your ideas, your nature photos, or the whole column to Kay Fairweather at 392 School Street, Carlisle MA 01741 or to

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito