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Wildlife Spotlight: Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet owl

What does it take to shine a little light on a small, secretive owl? Well, according to recent national news headlines, the owl would have to be rescued from the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree to get some attention. A northern saw-whet owl was roosting in the Norway spruce that now sits in Rockefeller Center when it was cut down near Oneonta, New York. It survived the 170-mile journey to New York City and was discovered by a worker while setting up the tree for display.

Here are some facts about the northern saw-whet owl, which also can be found right here in West Virginia.

The northern saw-whet owl is the smallest owl in the eastern United States weighing between 2 to 4 ounces and standing 7 to 8 inches tall. It has a wingspan of 16 to 18 inches. The northern saw-whet owl is mottled brown with white facial discs and bright yellow eyes. Its legs and feet are feathered to help withstand cold temperatures of northern latitudes.

Northern saw-whet owls are common and widespread, but they are nocturnal and very secretive in nature. They feed mostly on small mammals, such as deer mice and voles.

Northern saw-whet owls breed in forests across southern Canada and the northern United States.  Northern saw-whet owls have been found breeding in the high elevation forests of West Virginia and Maryland.

Northern saw-whet owls are migratory and are flying south through West Virginia now, with peak migration in early to mid-November.

Northern saw-whet owls nest in cavities even artificial nest boxes.

Our good friend and master bird bander, Joey Herron of Herron Birding, has been banding migrating northern saw-whet owls for 16 years at Valley Falls State Park in Marion County. Herron is part of a network of banders who are researching northern saw-whet owls and collecting data on their distribution and migration.

If you’d like to learn more about northern saw-whet owls, here are a few resources:

Author: Sheldon Owen, WVU Extension Service Wildlife Specialist