Northern Saw-Whet Owl in Antigonish NS

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by Randy Lauff

When most people think of owls, they think of the large, loud-hooting birds that can be a little bit eerie to hear at night. Seven kinds of owls nest in Nova Scotia and the smallest one, which can fit in the palm of your hand, is the Northern Saw-whet Owl. Unlike some of our owls, this one is not also found in Europe or Asia…it is exclusively found in Canada, the United States and in the mountains of Mexico, too.

Being small (15 cm) means it’s going to eat only small prey, which it hunts for at night. Small rodents like mice and voles make up most of its diet, though shrews are important, too. Occasionally, small birds are found to be part of its diet.

All small owls, like our Saw-whet, make their nests inside trees, normally using old woodpecker nests. No owl makes its own nest, and the Saw-whet is no exception…it doesn’t even add grass, moss, or feathers to the cavity to make it more comfortable…some other cavity nesters, like Tree Swallows, do this.


Fairmont, Antigonish, NS.

If you have access to some forest, you can try putting up a nest box or three, and seeing if you can get an owl to nest in one. The owls are not common though, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get one. If you do get a nest, do not visit more than once a week, and never disturb them by staying too long, or causing the mother to fly away.


The author with a clutch of chicks. (Note that the author has a license to work closely with the birds. Do not try this yourselves!)

Many birds migrate south for the winter, but certainly not all. Do the Saw-whets migrate? Big owls don’t migrate, but some of our Saw-whets do…we think all of the young migrate, and the adult females do, too. The males stay behind and look for a new territory, so they’re ready to start a family again in the spring. Listen for the mating call of the Saw-whet starting in March…unlike the bigger owls, they don’t hoot, but they do toot, and toot, and toot and toot… The sound doesn’t carry too far, so if you hear one, you’re likely in its home range. Good luck at finding one!

Can you spot the owl in this picture?


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Randy Lauff, M.Sc. Senior Lab Instructor, Ornithologist, Entomologist & Curator, StFX University, Biology Dept.

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