By Keith Michael
I have to write this quickly while Millie is out with her dog walker. Yes, Millie is unfaithful to me daily, and goes out on the town with her friends. Whether she has converted her canine companions to bird enthusiasts, I don’t know. She’s mum about that.
The reason I have to write quickly is because this is about a cute bird: a Northern Saw-whet Owl. Corgis definitely have an exponential cuteness factor (and Millie seems to know this), but owls, particularly small owls, exude cuteness by the bucketful (though what a “bucket full of cuteness” might look like, I have no idea). I don’t want to start any territorial scuffles fueled by “Who’s the cuddliest of them all?” jealousy, but it’s true: Saw-whet Owls are nearly as cute as Millie!
Part of our identification with owls, I think, is due to the fact that they have forward facing eyes, like us. Most birds’ eyes are on the side of their heads so you can only see one eye at a time, which makes them seem, well, flighty. But owls’ piercing binocular gaze makes them appear “wise,” like in all of the legends. This, added to a Saw-whet’s diminutive size (only about eight inches tall) gives them an uncanny resemblance to a tchotchke on a shelf, a fuzzy child’s toy, or one of your great aunt’s throw pillows.
You are more likely to see an owl roosting during the day in the wintertime. This is partially due to the fact that some owls travel south for the winter (New York is the Bahamas for them), therefore, simply more owls are here to be seen. Also, with the bare trees, it’s more likely that an owl will be spotted. Being primarily nocturnal hunters, during the day, owls are just trying not to be noticed. Most birds and even hawks don’t like them around, because being lunch or dinner doesn’t get a “Like” on anyone’s page. Dense evergreens are likely naptime choices, but sometimes, sitting out on a bare limb, motionless, looking like a broken off branch, is uncanny hiding-in-plain-sight camouflage.
I’ve often written that the new bird I would most like to see in the West Village is a Saw-whet Owl (an equal contender for that honor is a flyover Bald Eagle). I can’t really call it my “Nemesis Bird”—a term birders use for a bird that is around, but the birder always seems to arrive “just after it has flown away”—because I HAVE seen Saw-whets in other parts of the City. No, I just think that there are now mature pine trees in Hudson River Park, and that would be a perfect place for one of these little charmers to spend a winter afternoon. It would be even better if it spent that afternoon there when I was also around to see it!
Already this winter, I’ve hiked all over the City looking for owls, traipsing through likely haunts (I can’t tell you where those are), and have seen three Great Horned Owls and one Saw-whet Owl, and heard tell of Screech and Barred Owls. I’ll still be on the lookout for Long-eared Owls, Short-eared Owls, and, the prize: a Snowy Owl.
One more thing that adds to the mystery of owls is that polite birding protocol insists (if one doesn’t want to be tarred-and-feathered online) that one doesn’t let anyone else know “specifically” where you’ve seen an owl, so that birding aficionados and rubberneckers don’t rush out to see it too, and scare it away. Thus, if you happen to see a cute owl in the neighborhood: Shhhh. Send me smoke signals, and we’ll find a letterbox slot that you can whisper the location through to me. I’ll keep your identity a secret.
Oops, I hear Millie scritch-scratching in the hallway on her way back from her walk. Tear this article into pieces and swallow it. Gotta go.
For more information about birding outings, photographs, or books, visit keithmichaelnyc.com.