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A Look at Our Smallest Owl
Although most saw-whet owls pass through West Virginia during migration, a small breeding population exists.

A Look At Our Smallest Owl

By Rob Tallman

Here you are, high on a mountain in the Cranberry Wilderness surrounded by a dense red spruce forest. The sun is setting and the woods are growing dark. The thrushes sing the last few verses of their evening chorus and the forest around you becomes silent. The stage is set for the long quiet night ahead.

Then, out of nowhere, just outside the light of your fading campfire; an incessant, monotonous TOOT….TOOT….TOOT….TOOT….TOOT….TOOT….TOOT begins and lasts for what seems like forever. You haven’t a clue as to what’s producing this annoying noise, a sound much like the back-up alarm on a garbage truck! After all, you’ve spent nights in the high country, but never experienced anything such as this. Consider yourself fortunate. You have just encountered one of the Mountain State ’s rarest and most secretive creatures--the northern saw-whet owl. The northern saw-whet owl is a bird of the northern boreal forest with a relatively small but stable breeding population extending down the spine of the Appalachians through West Virginia and into the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina . The adult saw-whet’s plumage consists of a rusty-brown streaked underside and a darker brown back and wings with white or buffy colored spots throughout. The juvenile is mostly chocolate brown with a conspicuous white “V” on its forehead. The plumage of both age classes is set off by distinctive large yellow eyes.

The saw-whet’s most endearing feature is its size. It is the smallest owl in West Virginia , weighing in at 2.6 to 3.5 ounces (75 to 100 grams), slightly larger than the American robin. Don’t let its small size fool you, however, as it is a very efficient predator, feeding mainly on mice as well as other small mammals. Northern saw-whet owls are strictly nocturnal, feeding throughout the night and remaining well hidden during the day.

Northern saw-whet owls, a cavity-nesting species, will use natural cavities created by woodpeckers but will also use man-made nest boxes. In West Virginia , saw-whets begin displaying courtship behavior in early March. Typically, the female lays five or six eggs by mid-April and incubates them for three to four weeks. In most years the young have fledged by early June.

Unlike other common West Virginia owls, saw-whets are migratory. Most of the eastern population (including those breeding in Canada and the Appalachians ) winters in the southeastern United States . In West Virginia , saw-whets begin their southward migration in early October and may continue into early December, with the peak migration occurring around Halloween. The spring migration is thought to occur during February and into early March, but, as with many migratory birds, their spring migration is much less concentrated and poorly understood. The number of saw-whets migrating each year is highly variable and is thought to be based on the cyclic nature of the small mammal populations upon which they feed.

Even though considerable research has been conducted in the northern portion of the saw-whet’s range, relatively little has been conducted in the central and southern Appalachians . This research need is especially important since suitable breeding habitat is restricted to high elevation red spruce forests and migration patterns as a whole are poorly understood.

In response to this research need the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Wildlife Diversity Program initiated three studies to better understand the migration patterns, breeding distribution and abundance of the Northern saw-whet owl in the state.

The first study, initiated in 1997 through a research grant from the Wildlife Diversity Program, established a northern saw-whet owl fall migration banding station in The author places a nest box in prime saw-whet owl habitatRandolph County . The station began operations in the fall of 1997 on Shavers Mountain but was moved to Stuart Knob just east of Elkins in 2000. More than 600 saw-whets have been captured and banded at this station since its inception. Migrating saw-whets are attracted using an audio lure recording of their call set up in front of a line of nearly invisible nets, called mist nets. The owls fly in to investigate the call and become entangled in the nets.

Once an owl is captured, biologists weigh the owl, measure its wings and tail, note the eye and bill color, determine the age and sex, and place a numbered aluminum band on its leg before releasing it. If that owl is ever captured again or found dead, anywhere, the number on its leg band can be traced and valuable information on migration patterns, life span and general natural history will be gained. The Stuart Knob banding station is one of a network of over 50 such stations across the United States and Canada. Each fall several thousand saw-whets are banded at these stations and many recaptures are noted, providing key information on saw-whet behavior.

The second and third studies are designed to ascertain the distribution and population density of northern saw-whet owls in the state. A nestbox placement program began in 2001. To date, 135 saw-whet owl nestboxes have been placed in appropriate habitat in Pocahontas, Randolph, Tucker and Webster counties. DNR personnel will place another 75 nestboxes this fall. Only three of these boxes have had evidence of breeding saw-whets since 2001. However, given the fact that less than 12 confirmed breeding records have ever been recorded in the state, the nestbox program has made a significant contribution to our knowledge of the northern saw-whet owl in West Virginia.

DNR personnel and volunteers check nestboxes each April for breeding evidence. If a nestbox is occupied, it is revisited in May so that both parents and young can be banded. In addition, all the same measurements are taken as mentioned above for fall migrating birds.

The third study is an audio playback survey designed to elicit responses from territorial breeding saw-whets in order to gain an understanding of the distribution of breeding pairs. DNR biologists conduct these surveys in early April when most saw-whets are highly territorial. This is a roadside survey conducted by broadcasting the call of the saw-whet through a loud speaker at half-mile intervals. Any territorial saw-whet owls in the area perceive this broadcast call as another saw-whet invading their breeding territory and respond by flying in and calling back, occasionally even dive bombing the loud speaker! This survey method enables DNR biologists to estimate the number of breeding pairs in an area that otherwise would go undetected due to their secretive nature. This is also helpful in the placement of nestboxes into appropriate habitat.

Even though occurrences of the northern saw-whet owl are relatively rare in West Virginia, it is likely that this species is, in appropriate habitat, more common than once thought. However, the only way to determine this is by way of studies currently underway. So the next time you find yourself in West Virginia’s high country, remember to keep an eye (or an ear) out for this small, secretive owl.

Rob Tallman is a wildlife biologist stationed in Elkins.

Whooooo Needs You?

The future success of these studies is largelyApril Tallman assists with the banding study dependent upon volunteer participation. Anyone interested in helping conduct Northern Saw-whet Owl surveys is encouraged to contact Rob Tallman at or (304) 637-0245. All studies are conducted in the mountain counties.

Volunteers interested in the nestbox study must be willing to hike long distances while carrying gear. Those interested in the fall banding or playback studies can expect to be out in the field after dark and work well into the night, often in cold weather.