The Elusive Owl

Of the many bird species that are widely distributed in North America, the northern saw-whet owl is certainly the most elusive. This small, reddish-brown raptor breeds across southern Canada, the northen U.S. and down the mountain corridors of our country, wintering in these and most other regions, as far south as the Gulf Coast; nevertheless, due to its diminuitive size, retiring nature and strict, nocturnal habits, this owl is rarely encountered.

Northern saw-whet owls favor moist, coniferous woodlands, where they nest in tree cavities, often utilizing abandoned woodpecker holes. Feeding on mice, shrews, large insects and small songbirds, they roost in dense groves of conifers once the breeding season is over; during the day, they are generally quiet, immobile and rather tame, rarely flushing if humans approach.

Birders seek this prized addition to their life list by looking for tell-tale piles of regurgitated pellets, white-washed with excrement, beneath the saw-whet's roosting site. Some use recordings of their monotone whistle to draw them into the light or listen for the mobbing calls of chickadees and other small birds that are trying to dislodge the owl from their territory. Whatever method one might use, a great deal of luck will be the primary key to finding this elusive visitor.