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Banding Northern Saw-whet Owls

Last week we had the opportunity to band some young northern saw-whet owls!

Northern saw-whet owls are perhaps one of the cutest small owls in North America (in our totally unbiased opinion). They can be found across the U.S. and Canada, though they mainly breed in the Western U.S., northern U.S., and across the lower reaches of Canada.

Person climbing ladder propped against aspen tree in the woods.
Trained volunteer Lindsay climbs up a ladder to reach the cavity.

Northern saw-whet owls nest in large cavities, like those made by northern flickers and pileated woodpeckers. This one was in an aspen tree. Females are known to lay anywhere from 5 to 7 eggs. These eggs are laid asynchronously, which means one at a time, typically one per day across a number of days. The eggs also hatch asynchronously. When we first found the nest there had been 3 chicks, but unfortunately only 2 survived. The adult female from this cavity is already banded, but the male is not. He may be nearby when we visit the cavity, but doesn’t make his appearance known.

Young northern saw-whet owls look quite different from the adults. Adults are brown and stripy, like many owls. These owls are small, typically only 6.3 to 8.3 inches tall, and only weigh 2.6 to 3.5 ounces (males are lighter than females). Their wingspan is generally anywhere from 18.1 to 20.0 inches across. The adults are a warm reddish-brown color, with generous white streaking and white spots on the nape. Their bellies are white, with reddish streaks. They have small round heads, yellow eyes, black beaks, and feathered feet.

In contrast, the young owls are hardly striped at all. They have dark brown heads and backs, with a reddish chest and belly. Strikingly, they have a big white patch smack dab in the middle of their foreheads, stretching from the top of their beak to fill in between and just above both eyes. They also have yellow eyes, like the adults.

Two baby owls on the ground.
The two chicks on the ground in front of our banding equipment (from left to right): the hanging scale; banding pliers, a string of bands, and a small ruler.
Close up of hands holding baby owl and spreading wing.
Denver gently spreads one of the chick's wings to record feather growth and how much each flight feather has grown in so far. The second northern saw-whet owl chick is on the ground to the left.
One person holds a baby owl while another puts a band on its leg.
Denver (left) and Chloe (right) put a band on the leg of a northern saw-whet owl chick.
A person weighs an owlet using a hanging scale.
Chloe weighs the owlet by gently putting the owl in a sock and using a hanging scale to weigh the owl. She keeps her hand underneath the sock just in case.

After banding and taking some measurements, we put these little ones back into their cavity safe and sound. We’ll continue to monitor the cavity until they fledge, or leave the nest. The young owls will stay in the area for a few days while they learn how to fly and hunt for themselves. During this time, their parents will feed them and keep an eye on them.

Check out our Northern Saw-Whet Owl ID page for more information.

Baby Owl PSA

Catching a glimpse of baby owls is always a treat! However, if you are lucky enough to see baby owls in the wild, do remember that it’s usually best to leave them alone! It is completely natural for young owls to be on the ground when they first leave the nest and are learning how to fly. The parents most likely know exactly where they are, and are still in the area keeping an eye on their precocious babies and doing their best to make sure they’re well-fed. If you suspect the owl is injured or needs help, it’s usually best to leave it be and contact a professional wildlife rehabilitation center to get their advice on what to do.


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