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Smith and Pruitt Capture 20 Northern Saw-whet Owls in Arkansas

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Friday, November 20, 2015

Dr. Kim Smith, University of Arkansas professor of biological sciences, and Mitchell Pruitt, University of Arkansas biology student, have been setting records for capturing and observing the northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) in Arkansas. Beginning in the fall of 2014 with the capture of an adult female, Smith and Pruitt have caught and observed northern saw-whet owls within their research station on the grounds of the Ozark Natural Science Center (ONSC) in Madison County. The ONSC is located within Bear Hollow Natural Area, one of ANHC’s 71 natural areas.

Before 2014, the last documented sighting of a northern saw-whet owl in Arkansas was in 2010. Between 1959 and 2010, there were 12 documented sightings of northern saw-whet owls in Arkansas (Source: McGowan, Matt. “Little Bird Makes Big News.” University of Arkansas Fulbright Review. Spring 2015., but none of these had been captured. Thus far this season, Smith and Pruitt have captured and observed a record 20 northern saw-whet owls, with 3 others detected by vocalizations.

At a length of about 7 to 8 inches and a wingspan of 17 to 19 inches (Source: “Northern Saw-whet Owl”. Bird Guide, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2015., this elusive bird of prey is smaller than many other owls found in Arkansas including the screech owl, barred owl, and the great horned owl. Primarily found in the forests of the northern United States, this small owl is migratory in the fall throughout most of North America.

Smith and Pruitt used fine-gauge mist nets and a broadcast of the owls’ calls in order to attract the bird to their field site, with the hope that birds in the area would become curious, stop there, and get caught in the process. Each captured owl is banded, weighed, measured, aged, sexed, and then released. By observing these northern saw-whet owls, the biologists will be able to demonstrate that the owls are migrating through the area, and should be able to estimate how many migrate through each year and when.

Northern saw-whets prefer mature forests with an open understory for foraging, deciduous trees for nesting, dense conifers for roosting, and riverside habitat nearby. They nest in a wide variety of wooded habitats and winter in dense forests. (Source: “Northern Saw-whet Owl”. Bird Guide, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2015. ).

During winter, the owls are usually silent, making them difficult to locate. Despite multiple research stations working with northern saw-whet owls in Canada and the northern United States, the species’ movements remain largely a mystery. Being a widespread migrant could make the owl vulnerable during many parts of the year and in various areas, with more research like Smith and Pruitt’s providing a basis for future work in conservation and management.


“This research is very invigorating and is an inspiring way to be involved in ornithology and bird conservation,” Pruitt said. “Plus, the saw-whet owl is a bird of prey (which I love) and is clearly the cutest owl in the world.”


Photo credits:Top right: Pruitt banding a captured northern saw-whet owl, photo by Misty Gay. Top left: northern saw-whet owl, photo by Gail Miller. Middle right: Mitchell Pruitt (left) with a captured northern saw-whet owl and Dr. Kim Smith (right). Bottom right: northern saw-whet owl, photo by Gail Miller.   

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