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At-risk Species Spotlight: Northern Saw-whet Owl

At-risk Species Spotlight is a new, monthly blog post that will highlight one Nebraska animal that is at risk of extinction, with the goal of bringing awareness to the incredible diversity of wildlife we have in the state. See the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project to learn more about the conservation needs of these animals and the efforts to conserve them.   


An adult northern saw-whet owl adult appears from a nest box in the Wildcat Hills Biologically Unique Landscape.

Photo by Justin Haag

By Olivia DaRugna, Watchable Wildlife Biologist

Owls are captivating and mysterious creatures of the night. Rarely seen but often heard, these incredible birds provoke curiosity, making us wonder about the goings-on of the natural world at night. For January’s At-risk Species Spotlight, let’s look at the northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus), one of the smallest owls in North America.

Northern saw-whet owls are about the size of a tall can of soup and weigh as much as an onion. Their small size, large head and yellow eyes give them the appearance of an adorable stuffed toy. However, when night falls, these dainty-looking owls become fierce, nocturnal predators of mice and other small rodents.

In winter, this owl species inhabits mostly coniferous forests (made of trees that do not shed their leaves, such as pine, spruce and juniper) with a mix of deciduous trees (trees that lose their leaves in fall and winter, such as oaks and maples). During spring and summer, the owls move to their breeding grounds farther north into Canada. However, in Nebraska, the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills’ Biologically Unique Landscapes in the western panhandle host small numbers of breeding individuals, and there is sporadic breeding in other localized spots across the state; visit Birds of Nebraska – Online for more information.

Northern saw-whet owls nest in tree cavities, usually excavated by large woodpeckers or naturally occurring openings in dead trees or snags, but they are also capable of nesting in man-made nest boxes.

Wayne Mollhoff retrieves northern saw-whet owl nestlings from a nest box in the Pine Ridge to band them for research. Photo by Justin Haag.


The northern saw-whet owl is listed as a Tier II at-risk species, which means it is critically imperiled in Nebraska. Due to its small stature, elusive nocturnal behavior and preference for densely forested areas, their presence and abundance throughout the state in the non-breeding season can be difficult to determine.

Over the last decade, information from several research and monitoring efforts are helping biologists better understand the distribution of this species in Nebraska. During fall 2019-2021, Joel Jorgensen, nongame bird program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Stephen Brenner, avian biologist for Audubon Nebraska, conducted targeted northern saw-whet owl banding to document this species’ fall migration through the eastern part of the state (see their publication here).

From 2012 through 2018, Wayne Mollhoff, author of The Second Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas, monitored breeding northern saw-whet owls to gain information about their breeding locations, range and phenology (read more about the study here).

Northern saw-whet owl fledgling in the Wildcat Hills Biologically Unique Landscape. The young look different from the adults with their cinnamon-orange bellies and brown back and head. The white feathers in a “v” shape between their eyes gives them a grumpy unibrow appearance. Photo by Justin Haag.

Observation Tips

Northern saw-whet owls can be difficult to observe because of their nocturnal behavior, small size and preference for roosting in dense stands of coniferous trees. However, you can listen for their repetitive, high-pitched and monotone “too-too-too” calls from January to May in coniferous forests. Visit Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area and Wildlife Management Area near Gering for good chances of hearing this owl in the early breeding season.

In fall and winter, visit locations with stands of coniferous trees, such as pine, spruce or cedars. Hike among the small patches of coniferous trees in parks such as Branched Oak SRA northwest of Lincoln and Summit Lake SRA north of Blair. Look for whitewash, or bird poop, at the base of trees or the ground below branches. If you see whitewash, look up. You might see an owl perched on a branch near the base of that tree.

For more information about owling, check out this article from Nebraskaland Magazine. As always, if you come across an owl, give it space, do not feed it, and avoid playback calls.

Make an impact in the conservation efforts of at-risk species, like the northern saw-whet owl, by donating to the Nebraska Wildlife Conservation Fund.