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A day of jawdrops

Little did I know, waking up this morning in a foul mood, that it was going to be a three-lifer day and my mood was going to get entirely turned on its head.

One lifer was this little guy:

A Northern Saw-Whet Owl. And I do mean little. At 7-8 inches tall, shorter than a red-winged blackbird, this is the smallest owl in eastern North America. (Smaller ones still occur out west, including the ~5 inch Elf Owl that nests in cactuses.) For comparison, the common Great Horned Owl is up to two feet tall.

I was searching for this bird, having heard about him from another birder on the trail. I have chickadees to thank for finding him. You've probably heard the chickadee-dee-dee call before. When there are only a few "dees" to a "chick", it's just a standard "heads up" that can be used for any number of reasons (including "hey, a human is here. Lets see if she'll feed us.") But when you hear something more like "chickadee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee", it means there's a raptor around. A recent study showed that the more dees there are, the more threatened the chickadee feels. A small raptor like a Saw-Whet Owl, just the right size for catching and eating a tiny chickadee, is a major threat indeed. So when I heard a "chick" followed by ten "dees", I figured I was getting warm.

I've read that when chickadees make these calls, it's a call to arms. They're inviting other chickadees to join forces, mob the raptor and drive it away. (If the raptor is currently in flight and thus a present danger, the calls are different: very high pitched peeps that mean "lay low, guys.") But I'd never seen this in action before. I'd seen crows mob, blue jays mob, but I'd never seen chickadees do anything more than make noise. Until now. Suddenly the calls became louder, faster, more insistent--like a chickadee war whoop--and then they converged on a tree and started hopping up through the branches. I looked up to where they seemed to be headed, and there he was, sleeping away! He blinked groggily as the chickadees surrounded and fussed at him, then nodded off again. I would have liked to get a shot of him with his cute googly eyes wide open, but was unwilling to disturb his sleep to do it.

Unfortunately, owls at known roosts face a lot of harassment from unscrupulous photographers. For this reason I'm not publicizing the location.

Continued in next post!

Indian summerAn odd duck, and the upside of forest fires


October 23rd, 2012 at 7:33 am
Thanks for the great story, and the beautiful pic. I can't wait to hear the others.

October 23rd, 2012 at 7:36 am

There was an article here about a rescued saw whet owl in Brooklyn.

I have never seen chickadees mob a raptor either. I have seen crows do it, of course.

Chickadees are usually such easygoing little guys.

When I was a kid I heard the 'dee,dee, dee' call more often than not. We had lots of chickadees on our property. But it was also the home of Mr and Mrs Red Tail hawk. (Who were big enough to kill several of our chickens one day, and who my mom had to chase away with a mop!)

October 23rd, 2012 at 9:10 am
Chickadees are not easy going - especially if you let their favourite feed run out. Much scolding ensues.

October 23rd, 2012 at 2:00 pm
With chickadees, I find people confuse "cute" with "nice." It's true that chickadees can be very tame with humans--not because they're gentle, but because they are bold and intelligent and have figured out that we're a potential source of food.

With each other, they're fierce. They have a strict hierarchy from highest to lowest, like a wolf pack. A higher-ranking chickadee will displace a lower-ranking one from a food source. If you've ever fed them by hand and seen them lining up waiting their turn--they are lining up by rank. Males outrank females, the old outrank the young. That cute little gurgle you sometimes hear chickadees make means "you're on my turf, back off." Chickadee courtship rituals consist of a male chasing a female until he tires her out, then mates her.

A truly easygoing bird would be the Cedar Waxwing. Not only do waxwings not fight over food or status, they actively defer to each other. One courtship ritual consists of a male and female passing a berry back and forth. "No no, I insist, you eat it!"

October 23rd, 2012 at 7:40 am
Wow, a three-lifer day? Congratulations!

Saw-whet Owls are soooo cute. I have only seen them at Amherst Island, though, never here in Ottawa. That is so awesome that you found him. (Or well, the chickadees found him and led you to him!) I have never heard a mob of chickadees before. Now I know what to listen for!

And good on you for not disturbing him or publicizing his location. While most of us birders/photographers DO follow the birding code of ethics, many do not - especially when it comes to owls.

Can't wait to read the rest!

October 23rd, 2012 at 7:45 am
Again, congrats on the lifers!

This one looks pretty cute with eyes closed too!

October 23rd, 2012 at 9:15 am
I guess I am someone who you could tell where an owl roosts.

My thoughts:
1. She took a picture so how is that different from others?
2. oh wait, she mentioned open eyes, she must not have used a flash . . . but that seems careless (using a flash) not unscrupulous . . .
then there was a long, long, pause, and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe you meant something else . . . ponder . . . wait ... you mean people do stuff like poke owls to wake them up????


It is a lovely, lovely picture.

October 23rd, 2012 at 1:43 pm
When an owl roost is discovered and publicized in Ottawa, the owl will generally end up surrounded by groups of photographers for up to hours at a time. Some of whom will throw rocks at the tree, make noise, bait the owl with live mice, and otherwise disturb its sleep in their quest for the perfect shot. Obviously not all nature photographers are like this (I try not to be!) But the problem has gotten large enough that the OFNC no longer divulges information on owl locations and encourages its members to do likewise. Birds other than owls are not so much vulnerable to this since they don't sleep by day.

It's unfortunate. The first instinct for a birder when they see a good bird is to want to share the joy.

October 23rd, 2012 at 1:51 pm

October 23rd, 2012 at 7:04 pm
This is so much of a problem here that twice (to my knowledge) the bad behaviour of photographers has actually caused the owl to leave. This places undue stress on the bird when it has to seek out a new safe place to roost or raise its young. I never went to see the Long-eared Owls at the FWG because I heard the photographers were "mobbing" it and I didn't want to be a part of that and add to the birds' stress.

October 24th, 2012 at 7:24 am
Shakes head. I think I'm really glad that when my family bird watched as a kid, we never participated in that kind of insanity. For us, and I imagine most birders, happening across the bird was already enough of a gift.

Mustang Sallie
October 23rd, 2012 at 11:12 am
I can see where this event could boost your mood for the day- heck for the week, even. He sure is cute. Hope someday soon you will cross paths again and maybe you can get a shot of him (or her) with open eyes. Great picture though.

October 23rd, 2012 at 11:19 am
3 lifers? Awesome!

October 23rd, 2012 at 1:24 pm
He's awfully cute! Congrats on the lifer, and the pic! :)