saw-whet owl

How Did a Saw-Whet Owl Get its Name: Submitting Evidence?

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.


Added Link: Long-eared Owl Banding

The main target for fall migration owl banding seems to be the saw-whet owl. There are many stations through out Canada and the U.S that target the these little owls for banding. Usually with a mist nest and an ‘audio lure’ (a recording of the owls call that is on a continuous playback) to attract them. Sometimes other owl species are caught as well during these banding sessions, such as the long-eared owl. So up at the Hilliardton Marsh wildlife area in northeastern Ontario they decided to set up an area to target long-eared owls with good success. Kudos and hopefully this type of effort will continue! The link has been added to the link section of the blog for future reference.

Of Mice and Tunnels, (Winter Owl Thoughts)

Last year with the apparent barred owl boom, I had some thoughts as it related to long-eared owls. This is a vastly different season. It seems Snowy Owls had a great breeding year class way up north and they have come down in record numbers. Barred owls are not nearly as prevalent as they were last year, although they are still around just not ‘everywhere’ like last year.

Which brings me to long-eared, in which I recently scored with a long-eared. Alas no photo (no challenge point either) as it was unfortunately flushed as we were inspecting a different tree with wash/pellets, the ol switch-er-ooo. But it was nice to see one again. Later the same day, the family went to another area with decent long-eared potential, as we walked across a small field we noticed it was all crossed about with rodent tunnels through what snow (mostly re-frozen) was left.

One thing I did note last summer is that every fruit and nut tree (esp crab apples/pears) seeem to have a great fruiting season in my area. This may have help the rodent populations. Although It something that is more speculative/anecdotal, as I really don’t have real experience or been noticing field rodent tunnels before now. However, my yard is also crossed up with similar tunnels too. So now it something to look out for.

Second thing, we may be in-store for a ‘tough’ winter. I am writing this during a cold snow storm (20 degrees F )only to get colder (near 0 degrees F) and we live near the moderating effects of the ocean. If this trend continues, and the food supply is booming. It may shape up to be a good year for the other (than snowy) winter type owls (long and short eared, saw whet) as well, and who knows the cold and snow may even force a hawk, boreal or great gray owl down into Massachusetts…well that might be wishful thinking, but I guess I will go on record as not being surprised if the weather patterns remains colder.

Barred owls are still around, but not ‘everywhere’ like last year, (I was alone for this one, so does not count for the challenge)


Tunnel close up.

Rodent’s tunnel from above.

imitation = flattery

I am flattered that my Saw-Whet owl imitation is garnering responses. I am 2 for 2 for serious outings vs. response, but the first time was early am, and I received different call back than I tooted, more similar to the ‘winter vocalizations’ according to cornell I never did get a visual the first time but I am pretty confident it was indeed a saw-whet.
The second time was today, I had some time after work to try a quick evening hunt. I like evening hunts as sometimes there is still enough light out to do some fun owl watching. I started just early enough to get some scolding by a carolina wren. I continued on my walk as it was getting darker I headed back. As I circled back, (about 5-10 minutes had passed) lo and behold an owl was tooting, presumably from my earlier attempts. So here is the scolding carolina wren(with flash) and a saw-whet silhouette, hand held photo. Photos were taken about 20 minutes apart.

P1030682 P1030683

No points to the owl challenge though, as attracting with imitation especially alone doesn’t count.

Whet Your Whistle

Ok sorry bout the title, its better than the the omni-tempting Saw What?
I had not seen a little Saw-Whet owl in like 25 years. I was probably in 6th grade, I didn’t even see it with my eyes, a scope was pointed at it, I saw it through the scope high up in a pine, but when looked with only my eyes I never did see it. Anyway, I was able to whistle this one in right at dusk, with enough light still left to see it slowly fly its way down from some tall dense pine stand, it stayed about 25-30 feet above and did quietly toot a couple times. Normally I won’t use my flash (just the popup kind) for a pic, but temptation got the better of me. But I did have the flash on its lowest setting, there was still some light, and it was just about out of range…ahh I still don’t like it but it was the only way to document it, next time tripod. Even with the flash they are still just ID type documentation pics. I have tried imitating them a few times before mainly more of “hey you never know whats out there’ but never in ideal habitat, and never had anything respond. This was more prime habitat and who knew my imitation worked. And now that I know my imitation works I will have to use it very responsibly.
Also, Earlier this year I found this paper on “Detecting Saw-Whet Owls”. After reports from banding stations were quite good, numbers wise for saw-whet’s. Not really anything new, but some may find it interesting. Its a good time to add it too the Research link section of the blog as well.

time stamp was @ 4:25 ish just about 10-15 minutes after sunset.


Dispersal Season

Late Summer through fall is known as dispersal season with our resident owls. This is when, the parent owls reclaim their territory and juvenile owl try to find a territory of their own. Its a good time to listen at night as they tend vocalize as this plays out.
October also starts the Saw-Whet migrations into the area. Saw-Whet owls are very rare breeders in Massachusetts. They are more numerous in the winter as they move in from the North and West.

So far this season, Great Horned (Site 4), Screech, Saw-Whet (Site 8), and early this morning (4:00 am) at Site 2, a Barred owl was hooting.