Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 19, 2011

Dave’s Little Owl

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:11 pm

No one can own something that is wild, but one can claim some type of ownership by “discovering” some wild thing or having it named after you. Still, Pikes Peak wasn’t owned by Lt. Zebulon Pike (note that the name has no apostrophe) and Thompson can’t claim any of his gazelles as personal property (even though they do have a possessive apostrophe on their name). By this measure, Dave’s owl is not his either – not only was the species “discovered” hundreds of years ago, but tens of thousands have been seen over the ensuing centuries. He can claim some tiny bit of credit for one particular owlet, however.

The owl in question is a Saw-whet Owl.  This type of owl was first described in 1788 by a 40 year old German naturalist named Johann Friedrich Gmelin. These diminutive owls (weighing in at a mere 3 oz. or so) are not found in Germany, but are common fall migrants and regular winter residents here in North America. Gmelin used a specimen sent to him from Nova Scotia- a region known as Acadia. The bird doesn’t belong to him either but his claim remains as the name sometimes attached to the end of the scientific name (as in Aegolius acadicus Gmelin).   Because they are so small and reclusive (by that I refer to the owl and not some tiny German naturalist), Saw-Whets are very hard to spot.  Because Dave spotted one recently, I can bring you this blog entry.

Dave (let’s call him that because his name actually is Dave) came banging on the front door of the nature center early one morning. Dave is not German. He is direct from England and exhibits a gentle “across the pond” accent. So, you will have to add your own internal fakey Dick Van Dyke chimney sweeper banter in order to capture the feel, if not the reality, of his declaration “Oi’ve found wun – I found a Saw-et Owl.” He was so excited and could hardly contain himself. “I ahd to tell somebuddy,” he beamed.  He’s an experienced birder and has seen these birds before, but this one was special because he found it on his own. All other cases involved someone else finding one first and then describing where to find it.  This one was “his.” I knew his feeling, or could at least imagine it, because I have yet to be the first spotter of a Saw-whet over many years of looking. I was always the third or thirteen hundredth in line.

I asked him to show me the bird (willing to be the second in this case) and he excitedly volunteered to lead me to the spot. “You know, Oi wuz just readin Birder’s World,” he sez….says…, “and there’s a paart that sez ‘what t’watch for’. There’s the Saw-et Owl. It sez to look for the birds ah-fter a still noight and low in the shrubb’ry.  I come out this mornin’ – after a full moon and a still night – lookin’ low in the shrubb’ry and oi found wun!” We soon reached the location and there, perched prettily under the protective cover of a tangled mass of grape and honey suckle, was our…excuse me…his bird.

As usual, this Saw-whet paid absolutely no attention to us as it roosted. Although it cracked open one eye to confirm our existence, it remained still. His roost was a classic Saw-whet site 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. Dave’s enthusiasm was infectious and I thanked him for the opportunity as we returned to the center. It wuz ‘is Saw-whet alroight.

There was a sizable pile of white droppings under this perch and it appeared that the bird was a regular at this location, so we suspected it would be there for others to see in the future. Even though it vacated the spot for a few days afterward, it eventually returned and has been there for the better part of a week now. Dozens have made the pilgrimage to re-discover it, picture it, and then declare it cute and perfect.

I went back out the other day to see the tiny owl again.  A fresh snow had blanketed the scene and the day was quite cold. Dave’s bird appeared to be perched slightly higher than his earlier choice. His head was completely turned around and his face was buried deeply into the feather patch between his shoulder blades. The eyes were mere slits. The flakes of grapple snow sat lightly upon his puffed out feathers.  Again I took a few shots of the content subject and returned to my office.

It wasn’t until later that I looked at my photos and received a bit of a shock. The owl was sitting on a mouse! (see above and detail here). The grape vine sprouting out from under his feet turned out to be a tail connected to the whole body of a Deer Mouse. Of all the predatory birds of the world, there are few that would choose to nap atop their prey. Unlike most owls, these birds often cache their prey for later use and have been known to wedge captured critters into convenient tree crotches. So, such an act as resting on top of a future meal wouldn’t be out of character. This was the first time I have ever seen a Saw-whet with its prey in hand, so to speak. Actually I didn’t see it because it wasn’t noticed until the scene was in digital form upon a screen, but no matter.

With this “discovery” I have now taken on some unique ownership of this bird. As far as I know, no one else came out to view this bird on that particular day which means that no-one else saw it sitting on a mouse and dreaming mouse-eating dreams. I, the French-Canadian Irishman joined the Englishman Dave and the German Johann for a unique claim on this Saw-whet.


  1. Very cool indeed! We were out doing the annual Christmas Bird Count Saturday and while we peered into conifers and tangles of all descriptions, we didn’t seen any saw-whet owls. Or any other owls, for that matter – and it was a nicely overcast day that should’ve at least yielded one barred owl! Nice find and great shots!

    Comment by Ellen — December 20, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

  2. This is absolutely terrific! When we talk about Saw Whet Owls in programs with Raptor Rehab of Kentucky, I always mention that they will sit on a frozen mousesicle to thaw it, and am delighted to see proof!

    Comment by Kathy Dennis — December 23, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

  3. […] 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, […]

    Pingback by Out owling. | North American Birding — December 29, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

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