Our Tiniest Patient: the Northern Saw-whet Owl

by Calah Beckwith
Lead Wildlife Keeper

Hawks, falcons, eagles, owls. We treat a variety of raptors, each with his or her own unique challenges and needs. These predators of the sky range in size from the 10-pound bald eagle to the 1/4-pound American kestrel. Without exception, we know that regardless of size all raptors have extremely sharp talons and beaks made for tearing flesh. However, some raptors possess tools that are much more dangerous to humans than others. Eagles, for example, are incredibly large and powerful with talons and beaks that can cause great injury to those providing care if not handled with respect, confidence, and composure.

One day after his admission, the
little owl is feeling the effects of
his collision with a car.

On the other end of the scale is the diminutive northern saw-whet owl. It’s almost hard to believe that a raptor this small exists in the forests of New England. This owl is 7-8 inches in length from head to tail, and it weighs between 75 and 100 grams (0.15 – 0.22 pounds). Saw-whet owls are one of the most common owls in the forests of the northern U.S., but they are very rare in avian rehabilitation. They are very secretive, and their tiny stature makes them difficult to spot in their forest habitats. 

Nearly one month ago, we were surprised and honored to receive a northern saw-whet owl at our Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation. The little owl struck the side of a car while flying across a road – likely in pursuit of a meal. He sustained severe head trauma, damage to his right eye, a fractured furcula (similar to your collar bone), and trauma to his right shoulder. He weighed in at 70 grams (about the same size as an American robin) and is likely a male based on his particularly small stature.  

Now in a larger enclosure, the
northern saw-whet owl is bright-eyed
and well on his way to a full recovery.

While this little raptor has much less intimidating weapons, he must be handled with the same care and respect as the larger birds. Small birds respond to the stress of human interaction and captivity with much more intense physiological symptoms than their larger counterparts. Without a proper understanding of bird behavior and an ability to recognize signs of stress, it is certainly possible for a bird to die simply as a result of being handled by humans. We, therefore, had to be very careful with this tiny patient. We performed all treatments with speed and efficiency, limiting handling times and frequency.

We splinted his fractured wing, gave him special drops for his damaged eye, and gave him medications for pain and swelling. In general, he has handled the stress of captivity quite well. His splint has been removed, and he is now in a large enclosure where he can stretch his wings. Soon, we’ll move him to a large outdoor enclosure where we can truly evaluate his flight ability. We’re hopeful that he will have the flight skills necessary for survival in the wild – the prognosis is certainly good. 

We have felt truly blessed to be a part of this little owl’s story and to help him find his way back to nature.         


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