A Saw-whet Owl at Tifft Nature Preserve


(This 2nd Buffalo News column was first published on April 15, 1991.)


      In a hallway of our home hangs a painting of a saw-whet owl by Guy Coheleach.  It is a valued possession since its subject is one of my favorite birds.  Out of the painting stares a seven inch long, fluffed out, tawny butterball with its yellow irises almost covered by big black pupils.


      But this painting in no way represents the saw-whet owl that my wife and I found hidden in a pine grove of the Tifft Nature Preserve in mid-March.  This bird seemed much thinner, perhaps a distant, less affluent cousin of the little fatty of the painting.  To gain some sense of the size of this diminutive owl, hold up together three fingers of one hand: the bird could easily hide behind those fingers.


      This is always a difficult bird to find.  Although we had been given specific directions to a half dozen small pine trees, it took us several minutes to locate the owl.  It suddenly materialized like Alice¹s Cheshire cat where I was certain I had looked before.


      I had a similar experience several years ago cross country skiing through a thicket along Ellicott Creek on the university campus.  Straightening up from bending under a low snag, I found myself blinked at sleepily by one of these little owls from a distance of less than three feet.  It never even flushed as I awkwardly pushed on through the brush.


      As this suggests, the saw-whet owl is an extremely tame little bird.  We were able to approach the Tifft owl closely before its increasing concern caused us to back away to a less threatening distance.  If you ever find one of these birds ‹ and dozens of them quietly pass through this region in March and April ‹ I also encourage you not to disturb it.  Unthreatened, it will remain in the same area for days and even weeks.  You will be well rewarded.  Even my wife, who is only marginally tolerant of birds, was charmed by this Lilliputian representative of the notoriously vicious strigiform order. 


      Larger raptors like barred and great horned owls occasionally prey on saw-whet owls, but the smaller owls are hunters too.  Their food is most often rodents and frogs; however, at this season this saw-whet almost certainly thinned the numbers of the juncos and white-throated sparrows that foraged the ground nearby.  The only prey I ever observed in the talons of a saw-whet was a junco, but bigger (still only eight inch) females have been known to kill and devour red squirrels.


      Saw-whet owl is a strange name.  It sounds like something someone dreams up toward the end of the cocktail hour, like left tern or O¹Hara cardinal or coffee chat, but there is a reason for this one.  Only once have I heard the repeated metallic, whistled snee¹-awww notes of the courtship song of this species.  They wafted down from the midnight forest of Calamity Mountain to our Adirondack campsite at Flowed Land, and they did indeed sound like the working of a file back and forth, back and forth across the serrations of a saw.  The saw-whet has another song as well, a one-note whistle repeated every second for minutes on end.  Its quality is very different, yet it too could be taken for saw filing.


      Although many of the saw-whet owls seen here at this time of year are migrants, some do nest in the region, most often in the deep, often boggy and pine covered recesses of such sanctuaries as Bergen Swamp and Allegany State Park.  Evening visitors to these and other heavily wooded areas, especially in March and April, should listen for their eerie notes.