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Searching For the Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Short Talks From The Hill” is a new podcast highlighting research and scholarly work across the University of Arkansas campus. Each segment features a university researcher discussing his or her work. In this podcast recorded in the winter of 2015, Mitchell Pruitt, now a graduate student in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, describes his work on the migration patterns of the elusive northern saw-whet owl.

Mitchell Pruitt holds two northern saw-whet owls that were captured at the Ozark Natural Science Center.

Mitchell Pruitt holds two northern saw-whet owls captured at the Ozark Natural Science Center.

Chris Branam: Hello and welcome to Short Talks From The Hill; a new podcast from the University of Arkansas.  I’m Chris Branam.  In this episode, Mitchell Pruitt, a graduate student at the U of A discusses Northern Saw-whet Owls which until the last few years had rarely been seen in Arkansas since the 1950s.  Mitchell thanks for being here.

Mitchell Pruitt: Hi Chris, thanks for having me.

CB: The first thing I want to ask is about the name of the northern saw-whet owl.  Can you explain how it got that name?

MP: So the name of the saw-whet owl has to do with several vocalizations that it makes, which sound like your sharpening a saw blade, or whetting a saw.

MP:  I’m not exactly sure when it got its name.  Sometime probably in the mid 1800s.

CB: Can you just sorta describe what its call sounds like?

MP: Several of the vocalizations that we use on our caller to call our birds in are a male territorial call which is sort of a monotonous “toot-toot.”  And then we also have a migratory contact call, which is just an ascending whinney.

CB: And besides what it sounds like, can you describe what this owl looks like because its kind of a unique looking owl.

MP: So, the saw-whet owl is very small.  It averages about 7 inches tall and weighs around 3 ounces. So you could mail it for about three postage stamps.

CB: Now we’re not advocating mailing the Saw-whet owls.


CB: But it can on the…basically it can perch on your finger.

MP: Right.

CB: And, can you talk about what you and Kim Smith, who is a professor in the biological sciences department have been doing out in Madison County the past two years in terms of capturing and documenting these owls.

MP: The last two falls we’ve been going out to the Ozark Natural Science Center in Madison County which has great habitat for this species.  A typical involves arriving just whenever the sun goes down and staying until midnight or later if we’re catching birds.  We set up four mist nets which are each about 8 feet tall and we play a caller all night long of the bird’s different vocalizations and if they are in the area or migrating through they will become attracted by the call and fly into the nets and get stuck.

CB: And then what do you do?

MP: So, once we extract the birds from the net, we put them in a drawstring bag and take them inside the science center.  The first thing we do after we catch a bird is we band it.  And that is important because each band has a specific number that is unique to that owl.  So if it were captured somewhere else later in the season or several years down the road they would be able to know that this bird was banded by us in Arkansas, which is important in determining the movements.  How they’re moving and where they’re moving.  We weigh the birds and measure the wing length and in comparing those two numbers we can determine whether it is a male or a female.  Then we age the birds which is probably my favorite part.  It involved shinning a black light on the underwing.  There is a chemical in the feathers that fluoresces bright pink if it’s a new feather and lighter pink if it’s an older feather.  By comparing the pink hues we can determine how old the bird is.

CB: What does this matter?  Why should we care that you all are finding these owls out in Arkansas woods?

MP: Well, before we started our work last fall, there were only 13 records for Arkansas for the species.  It was thought that they were just sort of rare; just showed up rarely in the wintertime.  But as we’ve sort of determined; our research suggests that they are actually migrating through the area.  So it’s, in bird conservation when you have blank pages and such mystery shrouding a species it’s important to gather information for its conservation in the future.

CB: What appeals to you about this owl?

MP: Well, first off, it’s probably the cutest owl in the world.  I’m a little biased, but they’re pretty cute and I love birds so much, they’re just a real passion of mine.  To be actively involved in bird conservation is just sort of surreal.  Especially when you have something that’s been as well studied as birds, there aren’t all that many unknowns.  But when you’re able to find an unknown and work to fill in those blank pages of a species it’s pretty fun.

CB: How many owls did you capture this fall compared to the previous fall?

MP: During our 2014 field season we actually got started pretty late and only captured two birds, which was still pretty exciting for us because it was two more than had been documented in the state since 2010 and were the first two ever captured in the state.  But this year we started early and captured 22, which was just incredible.

CB:  And one of them was a male which you all were excited about.

MP:  Yes, all except for the one have been females and its thought that the males probably don’t migrate this far south, which is not uncommon in birds.  I can think of several species where the males stay further north in the winter so they’re closer to that prime breeding habitat in the spring.

CB: People in Arkansas have gotten excited about this project.

MP: Well first off, we welcome anybody who wants to experience this but we’ve never been in a shortage of people because few bird watchers in the state have ever seen a Saw-whet owl in Arkansas, if at all because they are secretive throughout their range.  So it’s, you know, we’ve have nights where we’ve only had a couple people.  We’ve also had a night where we had over 20 bird watchers out with us.  So we are never at a shortage of help.

CB: I appreciate it Mitchell.  I look forward to hearing more about the Saw-whet owl research in the future.

MP: Yeah, thank you for having me.

CB: Music for Short Talks From The Hill was written and performed by Ben Harris, guitar instructor at the University of Arkansas.  For more information and additional podcasts go to or, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.

About The Author

Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246 or

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