Northern Saw Whet Owl: The Cutest Owls. Saw whet owl size

The Northern saw whet owl is tiny, cute and recently newsworthy—one was found in the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Learn how to identify them.

It’s the small size and intense eyes that make a Northern saw whet owl so captivating. Despite being named after the sound of sharpening blades on whetstones, the tiny Northern saw whet owl’s charming, toot-toot calls are hardly menacing. The pint size owls stand just about 8 inches tall, about the size of a robin, with oversized, endearing eyes. Discover the amazing types of owls in North America.

The alarm notes of songbirds may draw your attention to a roosting saw whet owl in a dense conifer stand. You might also see the elusive birds at a banding program as researchers continue to learn more about distribution, mostly in the forests of northern and western North America. Learn how to spot the owl in your backyard trees.

Northern saw whet owls eat rodents, but they are so small they often eat an adult mouse over the course of two meals. The nocturnal owl is famously tame if approached. In fall, saw whet owls spread out from their breeding grounds in northern states and western mountains, wintering in thickets and woods across the country.

Rockefeller the Saw Whet Owl

Recently these adorable owls were all over the news when one was discovered in New York City’s Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. The owl, now named Rockefeller, was rescued and cared for at the Ravensbeard Wildlife Center, then released back into the wild.

“Rocky’s release was a success! She is a tough little bird and we’re happy to see her back in her natural habitat. We are sure that Rocky will feel your love and support through her journey south,” the wildlife center wrote in a post.

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Professional naturalist and award-winning environmental educator and author Ken Keffer has penned seven books connecting kids and the outdoors. Ken is currently on the Outdoor Writers Association of America Board of Directors. Ken was born and raised in Wyoming. He’s done a little bit of everything, from monitoring small mammals in Grand Teton National Park to researching flying squirrels in southeast Alaska. Ken enjoys birding, floating on lazy rivers, fly fishing, and walking his dog.

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Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)

The Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) is a small owl that is also known as Acadian Owl, Kirkland’s Owl, white-fronted Owl, Farmland Owl, Little Nightbird, Queen Charlotte Owl and Whet-saw Owl.

northern, whet, owls, size

Small Owl at the Alaska Raptor Center, Tootsie (Northern Saw-whet Owl)

In captivity, they have lived up to eight years. But in their natural habitat, they compete with Boreal Owls, starlings and squirrels for nesting sites; and are preyed upon by various birds-of-prey, including larger owls, Cooper’s Hawks and Northern Goshawks.

Distribution / Range

It breeds across North America; specifically south-eastern Alaska, central British Columbia, south to the mountains of southern California to southern New Mexico. It also occurs in Mexico.

Localized populations exist in western South Dakota and western Minnesota, northern Illinois, southern Michigan, central Ohio, West Virginia, western Maryland and New York.

Some also breed locally in the mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.

Most of them are non-migratory, although some may move south to central United States or even as south as central Florida.

Young birds are more likely to migrate than adults; and they also tend to go further south.

Even though they are fairly common, they are not easily seen, particularly because they are mainly active at night and also because of their camouflaging plumage.

During the day, they are usually roosting in the foliage, close the ground.


They are between17 to 21.9cm (6.7-8.6″) long, and have a wingspan of 45.9 to 56.3cm (18.1-22.2″). They weigh between 75-110g (2.6-3.9oz). Females tend to be slightly larger than males.

The face is large, round, light grey with brown streaks, a dark bill and yellow eyes.

The plumage is pale with dark streaks below and above, brown with white spots.

As is typical of owls, they have excellent hearing and exceptional vision in low light.

When alarmed, this owl will elongate its body in order to appear like a tree branch or bump – usually bringing one wing around to the front of the body.

Breeding / Nesting

They typically breed between March and May in coniferous forests, sometimes mixed or deciduous woods.

They nest tree cavities – many times taking advantage of abandoned woodpecker nests. They may also use nesting boxes.

The clutch size ranges from 3 to 7 eggs, which are incubated by the female alone for about 21 to 28 days. During this time, the male brings food to the nest for her to feed on and also defends the area around the nest site.

The young fledge when they are about 4 to 5 weeks old, but are still fed by their parents for several weeks after leaving the nest.

Diet / Feeding

These owls mainly eat small rodents. Along the Pacific coast, they may also take frogs, crustaceans and aquatic insects.

They also prey on small birds, such as swallows, sparrows and chickadees.

Calls / Vocalizations

This owl is generally quiet, mostly vocalizing during the breeding season.

The Saw-whet Owl was named for its unique “skiew” call made when alarmed, which resembles the whetting of a saw.

The courtship call – a monotonous, whistled “hoop” – may go on for several hours without a break.

A male flying to the nest with food for the female and the young, makes a Rapid staccato burst of toots. The female responds with a soft “swEE“.

Northern Saw-whet Owl Information

Habitat: Breeding habitat: A wide variety of woodlands including coniferous, mixed coniferous/deciduous, and deciduous. Prefers coniferous forests. Also, tamarack bogs and cedar groves.

Winter habitat: Similar to breeding habitat but may also include rural towns and suburban areas.

Diet: Mainly small mammals, especially deer mice but also other mice, voles, lemmings, shrews, juvenile squirrels, juvenile chipmunks, and occasionally small birds. Also consumes insects such as grasshoppers and beetles.

Additional Information

Northern Saw-whet Owl Photos, subspecies, description, habitat, food and feeding, breeding, movements and life span. (From

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl Identification Tips

New England Range

The Northern Saw-whet Owl is found year round throughout New England.

Northern Saw-whet Owl Range Maps from Cornell

Northern Saw-whet Owl Christmas Bird Count Map

New England is located in the northeastern United States and includes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owls are one of the smallest owls in North America, with them being about the size of a robin.

They have tiny brown bodies but large round heads with fine white streaks. Their eyes are bright yellow with thick white feathers forming a “Y” in between them.

Their backs and wings are brown with white spots. Their chests and bellies are white with brown streaks.

Juveniles have plain brown heads and very visible white eyebrows on brown facial discs. Their underparts are plain cinnamon brown, and they also have no spots on their backs.

northern, whet, owls, size
  • Aegolius acadicus
  • Length: 7.1 – 8.3 in (18 – 21 cm)
  • Weight: 2.3 – 5.3 oz (65 – 151 g)
  • Wingspan: 16.5 – 18.9 in (42 – 48 cm)


Northern Saw-whet Owls are usually resident all year in Canada, northern US states, and western US states. However, they may migrate to lower areas in winter to the rest of the US.

Habitat And Diet

You can find Northern Saw-whet Owls in dense coniferous forests where they roost hidden among the thick branches and foliage. However, they like it near an open area and water source where they hunt.

They are nocturnal, so they hunt mostly mice from a perch at night. They may also


Nests of Northern Saw-whet Owls are tree cavities that have been left from other species, such as Pileated Woodpeckers. They do not add any other nesting material and instead lay their eggs directly on the debris.

The female lays four to seven eggs that take four weeks to incubate. The male’s job is to bring the female food while she’s incubating.

Attracting Northern Saw-whet Owls to your backyard is possible with a nest box if you are in range and have lots of trees.

Fun Fact:

The Northern Saw-whet Owl got its name from its repeated tooting whistle, or the “skiew” sound that it makes when it’s alarmed or threatened. The sound is similar to the whetting of a saw.

Species Profile: Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Do you like to stroll through a forest on a warm sunny day? How enjoyable is it to walk among the trees, taking in all the sights and sounds of the woods! But did you know that there is a tiny owl you have most likely walked right past, sight unseen? Even dedicated birders can be stumped trying to spot it, though it often hides in plain sight.

Whoooooo is it? The northern saw-whet owl!

Searching for saw-whets

This pint-sized predator lives in the northern forests and western mountains of the United States, Mexico and Canada. They appear to prefer mature forests that have an open understory for foraging, along with deciduous trees for nesting and dense conifers for roosting – preferaby with riverside habitat nearby. Their name comes from an alarm call; a “skiew” sound that reminded early settlers of the sound of a whetstone, sharpening a saw.

Petite, yet predatory

Only around the size of an adult human’s fist, saw-whet owls possess excellent hearing and low light vision. They are strictly nocturnal, and at night these miniature owls become winged terrors, swooping down on their prey from a low perch along the forest edge. Deer mice, shrews and voles are all on the menu, but saw-whet owls will supplement their diet with beetles, grasshoppers, moths and bugs. Daylight hours are for sleeping, and these owls keep well hidden from view, perched motionless in thick vegetation. They are usually found close to the trunk of a conifer tree, about 3 metres off the ground. Their plumage provides excellent camouflage, and if threatened, they “freeze” in order to appear like a branch or bump. No wonder saw-whet owls are so rarely seen!

Romance and reproduction

Solitary and silent for most of year, the birds become much more vocal in late winter or early spring. Male birds start making a rhythmic tooting sound that may be repeated for hours with barely a break. An interested female will approach the male, calling out with a high pitched “tsst” sound. The male flies up from his perch, circles her in flight about 20 times, and then lands beside her to presents a prey item. He needs to show off his hunting prowess!

It is thought that the female chooses the nest site, which is usually located in an abandoned pileated woodpecker or northern flicker hole in a dead snag. Her partner may assist in the search, helpfully perching by a suitable site while giving his “too-too-too” call. The female lays 4-5 eggs, and does all the incubation and brooding, leaving the nest only a few times per night to defecate and cough up a pellet. Her partner hunts and brings food to the nest, both for his mate and the chicks.

Leaving the nest

When the chicks are about 18 days old, the female leaves the nest and roosts elsewhere, occasionally bringing food to the young birds, but, she may leave the area altogether, and even mate again with another male, if prey is abundant. Until the chicks leave the nest at around 4 to 5 weeks old, it is mostly the male who takes over feeding the young. The plumage colours of a juvenile owl and an adult are so different that you might think you are looking at two different species!


The young birds are fed for another four weeks, and then they are on their own. At around one year of age, a young saw-whet owl undergoes its first molt and becomes sexually mature, and are ready to find a mate when spring arrives the following year.

northern, whet, owls, size

Helping our saw-whets

Despite being common and widespread, the secretive habits of northern saw-whet owls make them a difficult study subject. Standardized surveys such as the North American Breeding Bird Surveys and the annual Christmas Bird Count have not been able to identify any population trends, but it is thought that their overall population has probably declined in past decades due to habitat loss. As saw-whet owls will readily use nest boxes, people living near a heavily wooded area could consider setting one up against the trunk of a larger tree, and not use poisons to control rodent populations as this may sicken an unfortunate owl who has eaten a poisoned mouse. As well, leaving dead trees standing means the birds will have more choices for nesting.

You will be lucky to spot a northern saw-whet owl in the wild even though they are year round residents in the forests of Alberta. They are hardy little predators, but much remains for us to discover about their wild lives.