One of the owl worlds ‘great’ mysteries (or not) is how did a saw-whet owl get its name. Of course there are answers: John J. Audubon wrote:
The Little Owl is known in Massachusetts by the name of the “Saw-whet,” the sound of its love-notes bearing a great resemblance to the noise produced by filing the teeth of a large saw.
I was much astonished to hear these sounds issuing from the interior of the grist-mill. The door having been locked, I had to go to my miller’s house close by, to inquire if any one was at work in it.
The problem is there is disagreement among those that study these owls as to which of the many sound saw-whets make that is the actual call that gets its its name. I found this thesis online the outlines the discussion very well:
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is named for a “saw-whet” call, although there is dispute about which call this is, as Saw-whets make a variety of calls, and the literature is ambiguous as to which vocalization is the true “saw-whet” call. The call is said to be likened, however, to a saw being sharpened or “whetted” (Cannings 1993).
The first call that many people claim is the “saw-whet” call is an advertising call that consists of a repetitive series of notes pitched at 1100 Hz. This call is given at a rate of two calls per second and is made primarily by males although females will make a similar call during courtship. The female’s variant is much softer, however, and less consistent in both amplitude and pitch than that of their male counterparts. The male’s version of this call is very loud and can be heard 300 meters away in a forest and up to a kilometer away over water. Territorial males will respond to a recorded playback of this call with a softer, lower pitched version that is more rapid, at four to five notes per second (Cannings 1993).
The second call thought to be the “saw-whet” call is a nasally whine or wail. This call is produced at about the same pitch as the previous call, but lasts for two to three seconds. The pitch will change during the call as more harmonics are added, as will the volume (Cannings 1993).
The last vocalization suggested to be the Saw-whet’s namesake is probably the closest sounding call to the sound of a saw. It consists of a brief succession of loud calls that usually consists of three calls per series. This call is made by both sexes. This particular call has been described as a “ksew-ksew-ksew” call (Cannings 1993).
Like a lot of owlers I have heard both calls and then some, and none of them reminded me of a saw or anything else being filed or sharpened on a whetstone. So I went to youtube to see what I was missing, and much to my dismay after seeing lots of videos of how to sharpen things I still was left not finding a similar sound to the owl. Until I saw one with an antique treadle grinding(whet) stone. It wasn’t the sound of the actual grinding that made a sound that was similar, it was the harmonic squeak of metal on metal that suggested (with out much imagination) with the right speed and rhythm would do a very nice tooting imitation, this would also explain the sounds from the “gristmill” confusion in Audubon’s account too, as a rotating grain grinding wheel that needed lubricant may also produce a similar sound. Anyway here is the video: I would love to hear from others that may have more insight than me on the subject or other evidence one way or another.