U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIORBUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
Northern saw-whet owl in the Saline Valley
Northern saw-whet owls are only 7 to 8 inches tall, about the size of the American robin. BLM Ridgecrest Field Office biologist Shelley Ellis, and retired California Department of Fish and Game biologist Denyse Racine were lucky enough to see this tiny owl in McElvoy Canyon in Saline Valley. Saline Valley is an arid landscape adjacent to Death Valley National Park bounded by steep-walled canyons. Small streams with narrow bands of riparian vegetation flow out of these rocky gorges in the BLM Inyo Mountains Wilderness. That is the setting where Shelley and Denyse flushed up this tiny owl that was sleeping in the streamside shrubbery.
The Northern saw-whet owl is nocturnal and hunts mainly small mammals, such as mice, voles, shrews, and squirrels. It also eats swallows, sparrows, kinglets, chickadees, and whatever small birds share its habitat. The saw-whet owl has been known to take birds up to 4 times heavier than its own weight. Hunting at night is no problem since owls have excellent hearing and exceptional night vision. The little owl sits high on a perch and swoops down on its prey.
The saw-whet owl migrates altitudinally with the seasons, preferring higher elevation, wooded habitats for nesting. This one is wintering in the desert riparian area where the biologists saw it. It probably nests in natural tree cavities or woodpecker holes up in the pinyon forests of the Inyo Mountains. In April, the female saw-whet owl lays her eggs at 1-3 day intervals until about 5 to 6 eggs are in the nest. The father hunts while the mother incubates her eggs, which hatch in about 3-4 weeks. Each breeding season, females can mate with different males and lay multiple clutches of eggs. After the young in the first nest have developed feathers, the father cares for them while the mother finds another mate. This type of mating is called sequential polyandry.
Larger owl species and hawks are the main predators of the saw-whet owl. If you hike frequently and are watchful, you too may see this amazing little owl!
- Shelley Ellis, BLM Ridgecrest Field Office biologist (October 2012)