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Blane Klemek column: Northern saw-whet owl goes toot in night

One of the most interesting avian groups is the collection of birds that we call owls. Powerful and silent on the wing, owls are special raptors unlike other birds of prey in many ways. As well, and with physical appearances aside, no other raptor--falcon, hawk or eagle--is active at night.

Here in the Northland we are lucky to have several species of owls inhabiting forests and fields everywhere. From the great horned owl, which is our heaviest, to the most diminutive of them all, the saw-whet owl, Minnesota is owl haven. But of them all, I'm especially charmed by the tiny northern saw-whet owl.

I first became aware of this little owl about 15 years ago on an early spring night at my home in Becida. After letting the dog outside, I stepped outdoors myself and stood for a time below a starlit sky listening to the nighttime sounds of the woods.

Off in the distance I heard a long series of monotonous tooting whistles. "Too, too, too, too, too, too, too, too, too . . ." And on and on it went; a repertoire repeated as much as 100-130 times per minute. Back then I had no idea what I was listening to, but I did remember thinking it was probably an owl. After all, how many creatures are vocal during the night?

Typically silent throughout much of the year, the northern saw-whet owl begins its endless love song in late winter and early spring. So, on that particular night, I returned to the house and retrieved my audiocassette tape of birdcalls and songs. Sure enough, after listening to taped owl calls, I learned that the "too-too-too" call was indeed the sweet song of the saw-whet.

After a search in the dark woods, I was surprised to find the tiny tooting owl. Within a small grove of red pines perched on a low branch next to one of the tree's trunks, I enjoyed my first glimpse of a saw-whet. Incredibly small and surprisingly tame, the little saw-whet allowed me to observe it for several minutes, even after it would fly a short distance to another perch.

As I've already mentioned, the northern saw-whet owl is Minnesota's smallest owl. Weighing in at a mere 2.8 ounces with a total length of around eight inches, saw-whets, as most owls are, are relatively secretive birds. Inhabiting mixed coniferous-deciduous forests, saw-whet owls are hard to find even when you know where they might be. Complicating matters for those of us interested in observing saw-whets is the fact that the pint-sized birds are entirely nocturnal and often roost inside of tree cavities.

Of perpetual interest to me, are the common and scientific names given to species of wildlife. The saw-whet owl is no exception. The widespread little owl has numerous common names including sparrow owl, sawyer, saw-flier, Queen Charlotte owl, and many others depending on where throughout its range the bird lives. Additionally, the saw-whet's species name, "acadicus", refers to where the bird was first discovered; that is, Nova Scotia. At the time, Nova Scotia's colonial name was Acadia.

Nonetheless, it's the saw-whet owl's voice that gave the bird its common name. Becoming quite vocal during the breeding season--typically between March and May--it's actually the owl's alarm call, not the more notable and near non-stop "too-too-too" call, that gave the saw-whet owl its most oft-used common name. Coming from the "skiew" alarm call, the sound evidently resembles the whetting of a saw.

On occasion, saw-whet owls will also use artificial nest boxes for nesting. Once at the Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary, Warren, where I was employed as the wildlife refuge's resident manager, a pair of saw-whet owls had once chosen a wood duck house as a nest site. Here in Becida, I have yet to attract a pair of saw-whets to any of my wood duck houses that surrounds Assawa Lake.

Perhaps, however, I should erect a few nest boxes deep in the woods, for it's there that female saw-whet owls generally choose to nest. After mating, female saw-whets perform all the incubating and brooding chores. During this period she spends most of her time inside the nest cavity, only leaving to defecate and to regurgitate pellets.

Meanwhile, the female's dutiful mate spends his time feeding her a diet of mostly deer mice and voles that he captures and delivers to her. She stays with the pairs' chicks, usually five or six owlets, inside the cavity for about 18 days before finally leaving the nest-cavity.

About two weeks later the chicks begin to venture outside on their own, perching on adjacent limbs, where their father continues to take up most of the feeding and hunting duties for his hungry brood.

Although the winter has just begun (officially anyway), it really won't be all that long until the northern saw whet owls' tooting, whetting whistles are heard once again throughout Minnesota's northern forests and woodlands.

As such, it will soon be time to go "a'owling". With so many species of owls to observe here in Minnesota, including the smallest of them all, searching for these nighttime birds will provide hours of mystery and intrigue. And if you do become an "owler", look for the little owl that goes toot in the night as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at