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Encountering the 'winsome' charmer

Northern saw-whet owls are known to be extremely approachable during daylight hours. Keith Corliss

It was the 25th day of November, 1985. I know because I wrote it down. As a young lieutenant in the Air Force, I was assigned to the 325th Bombardment Squadron at an air base near Spokane, Wash. Our crew was busy mission planning for a flight the next day when I noticed a small dark blur pass by the window and appear to land in a lone spruce tree. Excusing myself and donning my cap, I stepped outside for a closer look before coming face to face with the first northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) I had seen.

Each encounter since has been similar. A small oval-shaped bird sitting quietly on a limb, looking forever like it hasn't a care in the world. Books variously describe the bird's behavior as "tame," "winsome," or "approachable." Pete Dunne even writes, "After one look, you want to put it in a pocket and take it home with you." Indeed that is the case during the day while it is roosting. But like a vampire, watch out when the sun goes down. This eight-inch nocturnal raptor is ferocious and pursues its prey (mostly mice and small mammals) with a vengeance.

The northern saw-whet owl nests in heavy conifer or conifer-deciduous mixed woods often near low swampy areas across southern Canada, the northern U.S., and along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. It does seem to be migratory across much of its range as sightings occur throughout North America in winter.

This year seems to be a particularly good one for migratory movements, at least anecdotally. Bill Rogers is a friend who lives in northern Alabama. In an email he described the situation down there. It seems the entire state had only about five historical records of the bird until this year. A bird-bander and an acquaintance of Bill's had already netted and banded 10 birds earlier this winter.

The bird is the smallest of the eastern owls, over twice as small (by weight) as the more common screech owl. It has yellow eyes set in a whitish face with brown feathering. Its white breast is streaked with broad swatches of reddish brown. Brown describes the back, wings and head (tuftless) with white spotting. Tiny white streaks cascade down its forehead meeting between its eyes.

The name 'saw-whet' is curious. No, it isn't of Latin origin. But rather the word is descriptive of its monotonous whistled toots, which apparently resembles the noise produced by manually sharpening - or whetting - a saw blade.

It's a little on the frustrating side but I've never seen one in Cass County. I missed a chance a couple years ago when my wife and kids drove into the driveway one evening while one was sitting on the porch railing. I wasn't with them.

Just two weeks ago I was snowshoeing with a friend near his property north of Moorhead. We were nearly back to his wooded acreage when a group of scolding chickadees were heard about 50 yards away. Like the first time, my curiosity got the best of me so I slogged through the brush to verify the source of the chickadees' anxiety. Roosting on a low branch was a saw-whet owl. Just over a mile from Cass County.

But the day will come when I find one here. They are seen, after all, with irritating regularity. Hopefully it will be during daylight hours so I can get a good look. Plus I won't have to deal with its nasty nighttime disposition.