Owls of Iowa: Northern saw-whet owl

saw-whet owl in a tree

Great-horned owls may be the most well-known and most common owl in Iowa, but I don't think there's any disputing that the northern saw-whet owl is the cutest.

Only slightly heavier than a hairy woodpecker and about the size of a robin, the saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) is tiny and adorable.

Saw-what owls hide easily.

In addition to being small, saw-whet owls are also strictly nocturnal, which means they are almost never active at a time when humans would be able to see them.

However, you might hear their call --- too too too --- in a high-pitched tone January-May.

They are stealthy predators.

Northern saw-whet owls perch on low branches along the edges of the woods to hunt their prey, which ranges from small mammals to birds or even bats. Larger prey they may break up into two meals, and they will supplement their food with insects.

However, saw-whets are also the prey of larger raptors, including hawks and owls.

They may freeze their food for later.

Sometimes, saw-whet owls will cache their food, and in the wintertime, it may freeze before they eat it. They will then pick up what they want to eat, take it back to the roost and lay on it to thaw it before eating.

Juveniles and adults look very different.

You aren't seeing two different species --- juvenile saw-whet owls and adults just look very different!

Juvenile saw-whets have a light brown body and dark brown head, and after their first molt get their adult coloring with a mottled coloring and partially-white facial disk.

three juvenile saw-whet owls

Juvenile saw-whet owls. Photo by Kathy & Sam, via Wikimedia Commons

They have asymetrical ears.

Many owls have ears that are asymmetrical, but saw-whet owls have extremely asymmetrical ears. The right ear hole is higher and faces upward, while the left is low and faces downward. Using these differences, the saw-whet can triangulate sounds and detect where prey is even when it is incredibly dark out.


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