Northern saw-whet owl

What is the Smallest Owl in North America? (A Full Guide)

If you’re wondering, what is the smallest owl in North America? You’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll take a look at the Northern Saw-Whet Owl, complete with photos, identification tips, range maps, sightings maps, calls, songs, and much more. So whether you’re a seasoned birder or just getting started, this guide will help you add this special owl to your life list.

What is the Smallest Owl in North America?


  • Length: 7.1-8.3 in (18-21 cm)
  • Weight: 2.3-5.3 oz (65-151 g)
  • Wingspan: 16.5-18.9 in (42-48 cm)
  • Scientific Name: Aegolius acadicus

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) is a small owl. The adult is 7 to 8.5 inches in length with a wingspan of 16.5 to 19 inches. The Northern Saw-Whet Owl has white spotting throughout its plumage, and a large head with a white facial disk. It has a small hooked beak and yellow eyes.

Males have a slightly darker coloration than females, but both sexes have the same patterning. Juvenile birds are very similar to adults, but have a much grayer appearance.

Similar Species in Appearance

Boreal owls are also found in North America This owl is very similar in appearance to the Northern Saw-whet, but are a bit larger, reaching 10.2″ (26 cm) tall. Both birds have small hooked beak and the boreal has a yellow colored beak.

The coloration is very similar to that of the northern saw-whet owl, and the difference is really in the pattern of the stripes on the wings.

Another key difference between the boreal owl and the northern saw-whet owl is that the eyes of a boreal are very large. They are not quite as large as those of the saw-whet.

The eyes of the owl also have a little black ring in the middle of the iris and a white feather behind the eye. The boreal owl’s iris bands are black, while the saw-whet owl’s iris bands are gray.


Northern Saw-whet owls are found in a variety of habitats, including forests, woodlands, and even urban areas. They seem to prefer areas with dense vegetation, such as thickets or tangles of vines and shrubs. These dense areas provide them with places to hide from predators and wait for prey.

Northern Saw-Whet Owls are mostly active at night, but they have also been known to hunt during the day. When they are hunting, they perch on a high branch and scan the ground for prey.

A Northern Saw-Whet Owl perched in a tree.
Image by Hans Toom from Pixabay

Distribution Range

This owl is found in North America, from Alaska and Canada to as far south as northern California and the Great Lakes region. It is a year-round resident in much of its range, although some birds may disperse southward in the winter.


The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is a special bird with many interesting behaviors. One of the most notable is its hunting style. These owls will often perch on a high branch and scan the ground for prey. When they spot an animal, they will swoop down and grab it with their powerful talons.

Another interesting behavior of the Northern Saw-Whet Owl is its nesting habits. These owls will typically nest in tree cavities or nest boxes. They will also reuse the same nest year after year if possible. This helps them to avoid predators and keep their young safe.

Finally, Northern Saw-Whet Owls are known for their vocalizations. They make a variety of sounds, including hoots, screeches, and whistles. These calls help them to communicate with each other and defend their territories.


The Northern Saw-Whet Owl gets its name from its distinctive call, which sounds like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone. They have two main calls, a tooting call and a trill. The bird’s primary call is a series of 8-10 high-pitched “toots” that decrease in volume towards the end.

The trill is a long, continuous series of notes that sounds like someone whistling or sawing wood. These calls are used to communicate with other owls and to attract mates.

The Saw-Whet Owl also produces a number of other sounds, including a soft “bark” and a hissing noise that it uses when alarmed or excited. These vocalizations help the bird communicate with others of its kind, as well as warn off potential predators.


The Northern Saw-whet owls feed on small animals such as shrews, moles, chipmunks, bats, birds, rabbits, squirrels, mice, and rats. The owl will also feed on fish and other marine wildlife, particularly fish eggs, chicks, and tadpoles.

It will not eat live prey. Instead, the owl will go after dead rodents which are left out to dry in the open. The owl will then try to force these rodents into its beak to digest them, a process known as ‘scavenging’.

As well as feeding on animals, the owl will also forage for other types of food such as nuts, berries, and grasses. In order to consume the food that it needs, the owl must have a powerful beak to scrape through these hard objects.


The migration takes place during the summer from early spring up until late summer. The migration path is very long and the Northern Saw-Whet Owl migratory bird is the first one to cross it, in order to travel from the Arctic circle to the southern part of the continent.

As they move, they visit each of their various territories, as well as meeting and mating with members of their own species. They have long been considered to be among the most migratory birds in the world.

During their migration, they spend almost a whole year flying between different areas on their way south. In addition, during the winter months they spend more time south than north, staying close to the Arctic Circle to escape the cold climate of northern countries.

As they travel north and meet other species of birds and animals, they become more visible and more easily seen by people around them.

Conservation Status

The northern saw-whet owl is considered to be an endangered species, and according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it is threatened by the presence of hunters who regularly hunt it as a target for sport. Hunting of the owlet by humans is illegal in most states, although such violations are rarely reported.

Although it is considered to be endangered, many hunters hunt it, and it is also illegal to kill this owl. Because it is endangered, there is a lot of controversy over its conservation status and management.

Related Post: 17 Fun Facts About Owls in 2022: That Might Surprise You!


  • Vince S

    Meet Vince, the passionate founder of Learn Bird Watching, boasting 30 years of birding experience. With an unwavering mission to empower fellow bird enthusiasts, Vince shares invaluable wisdom and guidance. As a dedicated moderator and contributor to Quora's Bird Watchers' Club, he actively engages with the birding community, where his insightful answers have garnered 434,682 views and 2,670 upvotes. Whether you're a budding birder or a seasoned avian aficionado, his wealth of knowledge is at your service. Reach out for expert insights and support at, and embark on a rewarding journey in the world of birds