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A Bad Day for Saw-Whet Owls

Monday, May 26, 2008

Back in the pines on Whitefish Point, birders attending the festival were clustered happily around a major find. You had to kneel to see it, the pine was so thick with branches.birderswatchowl

It was a long-eared owl with prey. Close examination through the scope revealed the russet flank streaking of a saw-whet owl in the mess in its talons. Bummer. But that's what big owls do to smaller owls. LEOW's themselves often fall prey to great horned owls. And so it goes.

(September 10, 2008: Nova and Chris from Whitefish Point Bird Observatory have just written to say that examination of the leavings under the LEOW's perch proved that the prey had been a hermit thrush. Thanks, Nova and Chris!)

  Nobody much eats GHOW's. Doesn't seem fair somehow. There ought to be a great horned owl-eating owl. Now, that would be a bird. I'm beginning to sound like Jack Handy (Deep Thoughts.)


Another saw-whet owl who considered himself fallen on bad fortune, I'm sure, was in the gentle hands of Nova Mackentley, acting co-director, with Chris Nery, of WPBO. Two years ago, they started a summer banding program that illuminated an enormous movement of juvenile saw-whet owls that no one knew about until they started playing tapes next to mist nets. We're learning volumes about these tiny owls thanks to Nova and Chris' efforts, and those of the volunteers who help them. To band saw-whet owls, you have to stay up all night. And consider this: they've caught nearly 1,000 saw-whet owls at Whitefish Point this spring alone!! That's a lot of coffee, a lot of sleepless nights and bleary days.

I am too much of a weenie to band saw-whet owls. This I believe.


With its wing stretched, the banders could tell its age. This is a second-year bird.

As long as we were annoying the owl, I asked if I might take a peek at its ear.SWOWeareye
Wanna know what the Science Chimp really, really loves about this picture? That makes her jump up and down, pant-hoot and throw bananas at the ceiling? Well, the bluish bulge inside the ear is actually the back part of the owl's left EYE. Yeah. You're looking at its eye, inside its skull, thinly covered by inner ear skin. Owl eyes are so huge that they are quite vulnerable, so they're protected by bony sclerotic rings, and fixed, immobile, in the skull. This is why owls turn their heads to look at the tiniest thing--because they can't move their enormous eyes from side to side or up and down. And I discovered that you can see an owl's eye by looking in its EAR. Which I didn't figure out until I uploaded the picture and wondered what I was actually seeing. Having skinned a few owls, I realized that I was looking at the bony sclerotic ring. Eee! Eee! Eee! I have to go lie down now.

A heavily ticked-off saw-whet owl. Good thing there isn't a smaller owl in the East. It'd get eaten.

With all thanks to Nova, I prefer my saw-whets on the hoof. And not far from where one had been turned into dinner, and another into an ear model, there was one who was able to rest just a bit before flying north over Superior. Sleep well, little owl. Soon enough you'll be away from all this hubbub.
Thanks to everyone who wrote in about Ruby. You're all so nice. It helps.


woah! if looks could kill - the scowl on that owl is unbelievable!

I just love the last photo of the saw whet being "slightly irritated." This is a bird my husband has always wanted to see - I guess we didn't look hard enough when we were at whitefish point last year!

As you know I just love seeing these guys and know those looks you were getting from them being banded! Great Pictures Julie and I also love looking at their ears!

Oh, oh, oh, Julie, Julie, Julie, you done good givin' me a case of out loud laughs tonight.

Who would have known you could see an owl's eye through its ear? Many might know that but not ME.

Priceless: pant-hoot and throw bananas at the ceiling?



You never cease to amaze me with what you can teach us. Thank you! Man, that was one unhappy owl at the end!

Man, that's a serious owl scowl. But no scowling for this primate -- I hooted and pounded the desk at the ear/eye revelation. It nicely 'splained the mechanics of the little grey-phase Screech that gave me the fish eye (owl eye?) this evening from my neighbor's white pine after the Robins and Catbirds so thoughtfully pointed it out. Repeatedly. For like, 20 minutes.

Thanks; best looks I've had at a saw-whet owl... or should I say a saw-whet scowl :-)

Cool post and very cool shot of the mad owl!

You jump around and toss bananas, I get squeamish. Seriously, had to grab the edge of the desk there for the great eyeball revelation. It was no gutpile, but mighty close.

I had the chance to visit the saw-whet banding station in Chillicothe OH, and was able to hold one of the owls. Stroking the head, I put it to sleep. Its little head flopped to the side. We were able to see the owls under black light, used to estimate the age of the owls. We also got to see the eye in the ear. SO COOL!!

Sandy B

Just a very late follow up on the Long-eared Owl's meal. An investigation under the roost site on the following day revealed that it was a Hermit Thrush, not a Saw-whet.

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