Out Owling for Saw-whets

by Greg Neise

November 30, 2020

Northern Saw-whet Owl roosting in a vine tangle, by carroll.cathy, on Flickr.

For many of us in the ABA Area, October and November is when northern and mountain owls start showing up close to our homes.

For much of my nearly 50 years of birding (east of the Mississippi), going out owling meant playing 4 calls (first on a cassette recorder, then an iPod): the Eastern Screech-Owl “whinny” and deep trill. The classic Great Horned Owl territorial hooting. The raucous “who-cooks-for-you’all?” of the Barred Owl, and the “toot-toot-toot-toot-toot-toot …” of the Northern Saw-whet Owl.

All I ever got to respond were screech and Great Horned, because there simply were no Barred Owls in the Chicago area (boy, has that changed), and saw-whets either didn’t call back or simply weren’t there. Barred Owls are range-expanding, and are filling up woodlands all over northern Illinois. As for saw-whets, well, it turned out that I didn’t know what kinds of noises they made in fall and winter. Now I do, and it’s changed everything.

A friend of mine turned me on to the Cornell 2-CD set Voices of North American Owls. Owls are talkative, and on these disks is a treasure trove of owl noises. My first experience with a saw-whet at night was the result of broadcasting the “fall vocalizations” in some likely habitat near Chicago. Since then I’ve heard mostly barks and an occasional “strangled cat” whine. One time, while doing a Christmas count, I started up a saw-whet, which then got a second bird to start calling. Our small group sat back and listened to them go at it, with one of them running through the whole repertoire of calls, from barks and “kneeuks” and whines to finally finish with the “toot-toot” advertising call.

Sometimes you get very lucky. Northern Saw-whet Owl, Lincoln Park, Chicago. April 1989. Photo by Greg Neise.

What are these calls? Here’s a few examples of Northern Saw-whet Owl–what are typically referred to as “fall vocalizations”:

I call this the strangled cat whine:

Here’s a barking call, with a whistling whine:

Sometimes you have to look very closely. Northern Saw-whet Owl in a Chicago cemetery. March 2008. Photo by Greg Neise.

More barking:

But sometimes out in the field … things happen. At a spot that we knew at least two Northern Saw-whet Owls had set up winter territory, Illinois birder Geoff Williamson joined me to listen for them. At 00:10 in the next recording, I start playing the call. You’ll hear 6 “kneeoowk” barks coming from my iPod. The recording has a lot of background noise, which sounds like an airplane going over. At 00:18 I cut the recording (after the 6th bark) and immediately a saw-whet responds, with a long-loud, rising, “strangled cat” call. But is it? Barely a second later, a Barred Owl starts calling, and we’re not sure for a moment whether the first call was a saw-whet or the Barred (the “cat” call seemed to be much closer than the Barred). But we determined that it was a Barred Owl after all, either a pair, or just a female.

But as we stood in the dark listening, a Northern Saw-whet did call, this time very close and unambiguously:

It was a very still, quiet night. What sounds like a very distant Great Horned Owl in this last recording is trucks speeding along an 8-lane expressway a few miles away.

The week we made that recording, I found 9 Northern Saw-whet Owl winter territories in a forest preserve area of about 5 square miles, in the Chicago metro area. Only one of them had any conifers at all. What they all had in common was forest edge, with rather dense undergrowth and wild grape, or other types of vine tangles. Gerry Wykes describes the perfect Saw-whet roosting site as, “…with a dense covering for a roof, an airy open bottom, and a location low in the “shrub’ry.” It was the type of spot I’ve eyed hundreds of times before, except that all my spots lacked the presence of a Saw-whet.”

That has been my experience as well—I’ve never found one that wasn’t in a conifer. But my nocturnal endeavors proves Gerry’s description is true … these little owls are just really, really good at not being found, and they’re probably more common than we realize. But beware, because screech-owls can bark too, but if heard well, you can tell the difference:

Voices of North American Owls <www.birds.cornell.edu/macaulaylibrary>

And I learned another thing while studying owl vocalizations in my local forest preserve. I had sometimes heard a guttural, squeaking noise made by some animal. Not really knowing what else it could be, I assumed it was a raccoon, or possibly a flying squirrel. That is, until I learned of the Eastern Screech-Owl’s “chuckle-rattle”:

Voices of North American Owls <www.birds.cornell.edu/macaulaylibrary>

That winter of 2011, I heard 6 different vocalizations of Northern Saw-whet Owls, and learned of a new one made by Eastern Screech-Owls. Our little birding team that did big days, Christmas counts, and chased rarities together studied recordings of local owl species calls, and got pretty darn good at finding them–particularly saw-whet owls–in the forest preserves and cemeteries near Chicago. But one pitch-black moonless December morning, on a Christmas count, we heard a call that we all knew instantly, but never thought we’d encounter in the field:

Voices of North American Owls <www.birds.cornell.edu/macaulaylibrary>

That is a Northern Saw-whet Owl–what’s been called the “the comb call”. Eastern Screech-Owl also gives a similar, lower pitched version, that sounds like someone dragging their thumb across the tines of a pocket comb (hence our name for it).

Spending some time in the dark listening for owls is good for the soul, and can be exciting. One magical morning, at the start of a big day in January with my buddy Jeff Skrentny, we made our first stop at a woods where Eastern Screech-Owl was reliable. As we stepped out of the car into the still bright moonlight we were greeted by an owl chorus. The first thing we heard was a very loud Barred Owl, then a second Barred, then also a very close screech-owl. A few seconds later a Great Horned started up and in the near-distance a saw-whet! It was an experience neither of us will ever forget.

Here’s a few more tips:

  • Be frugal with the use of recordings. Broadcast once, and listen. Try again, and listen. Listen some more, and if you get nothing, move on to the next spot.
  • If a bird responds, stop using your recording. Don’t “egg it on.” If it’s feeling garrulous, awesome. If not, so be it.
  • Watch overhead. A lot of times an owl will silently fly in and land right over your head, and just watch you without making a sound. Even in the darkest nights, you can usually pick out the motion. In my experience, owls are not bothered by flashlights. But just as with recordings, use sparingly. Never chase or try to coax closer for a photo.
  • If you find a bird calling, by all means do record it! Then submit it to eBird, and include your recording of the call. Here’s a primer by Ted Floyd on using your smart phone to record bird sounds.

ooo

ooo

Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world’s tropical rainforests. Greg is Web Master for the ABA, helps manage social media, sits in on the ABA Podcast on occasion, and of course, is a fanatical birder.