by Alexandra Forsythe
The month of October brings to mind beautiful autumn leaves, bountiful harvests and plump pumpkins. For me, October also signals the return of my spark bird: the Northern Saw-whet Owl.
Just a few years ago, when I first became interested in birds, Fred Wooley, chief naturalist at Pokagon State Park, urged me to attend the Northern Saw-whet Owl banding program at the Indiana Dunes State Park. I am so glad that I did! It was the first time I met Brad Bumgardner, chief naturalist at the Dunes and birder extraordinaire. Brad conducts a Saw-whet banding program through Project Owlnet every year around Halloween, and it is immensely popular! He combines the banding with an entertaining, educational program to create a night that is fun for the whole family. My first night we captured three Saw-whets, one of which was quite spirited. She captured my heart. What a precious little face! From that moment on, I was no longer a bird watcher – I was a birder!
Northern Saw-whet Owls are the smallest owls east of the Mississippi River. The adults have brown backs with white spots, white bellies streaked with rusty brown, and a brown-and-white streaked facial disc with bright yellow eyes. They are the epitome of cute!
When courting, the male circles the female about 20 times, then presents her with a romantic dinner of dead mouse. He then does all or most of the hunting while she sits on the eggs. The female leaves the nest to roost elsewhere when the youngest chick is almost 3 weeks old, while the male stays behind to provide food for the chicks.
Northern Saw-whet Owls irrupt about every four years, appearing in greater numbers in Indiana. Look for them in their favorite roosting sites: dense conifers. When discovered, the owls have a tendency to “freeze” rather than fly, leading people to believe they are tame.
Even though Saw-whets never fail to elicit an “Aww!” from anyone who sees them, they are rarely mentioned in pop culture. Martin, one of the characters in the popular Guardians of Ga’Hoole book series is a Northern Saw-whet, and the call of the Saw-whet is mentioned in a Grateful Dead song: Unbroken Chain.
You can learn more about Project Owlnet here:http://www.projectowlnet.org/. Find out more about the Dunes’ Saw-whet Owl Project here:http://indianadunesbirding.wordpress.com/longshore-birding-platform/saw-whet-owl-project/.