Feeling a Little Owly

Northern Saw-whet Owl in Spruce tree sketch by Heather Hinam

Over the last 15 years, owls have become a big part of my life, so it’s only natural to expect them to find their way into my artwork. One species in particular has had a starring role for almost 10 years now, the Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus). I spent five years chasing these tiny, elusive birds around in the dark as part of my doctoral research so their likeness has burned its way into the back of my brain. Like most members of a single species, they tend to all look the same to us at first glance. Male and female saw-whets have the same plumage pattern; their only real difference is body size, with females outweighing males by about 40 g and having larger wingspans. However, if you spend enough time with a group of animals, like I did with my saw-whets, you start to notice the subtle differences. One bird has wider-set eyes, a softer face, darker feathers or a certain attitude that sticks with you for years after your encounter.

Northern Saw-whet Owl Sketch by Heather Hinam

I imagine animals have just as hard a time telling individual humans apart. To them, we’re probably just a bunch of tall funny-looking, two-legged beasts that usually spell danger or at the very least, annoyance. I hope that over time and repeated encounters, some of them start to notice the differences, those humans who talk softly and offer respect versus those that yell or run or cause them stress. I have a feeling my saw-whets didn’t see me in a very good light. Unfortunately for them, my research involved handling and blood samples and radio-tagging, which I’m sure wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience. Still, I was always gentle, always respectful and I think some of them managed to sense that and calm down in my presence. Either way, they’ve left an indelible mark on my soul. Every time I pass a patch of older forest, I can’t help but wonder at the owls who make their home in its depths.

Juvenile Saw-whet Owl sketch by Heather HinamThe juvenile saw-whets are especially unforgettable. These little balls of fluff with huge, searching eyes are just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Capturing them in pencil doesn’t really do justice to their soft, rolly-pollyness. I’ll have to try it in colour sometime. At that stage when they’re just about ready to leave the nest is when they are at their most trusting and when you get a chance to really pick out the different personalities. In the brood that these two came from there was the quiet, sleepy one, who was more than happy to snuggle into your jacket pocket, the two who looked like twins, even though that isn’t possible and the high-strung, eager one who was ready to fly away as far as his new wings could carry him and take on the world, but not before beating me up first. Some of those differences were likely due to the age difference among the nestmates; each successive egg hatches about two days after the one before it.  Still, I like to think that some of those personalities find their way into the adult bird.

Regardless, these, the smallest owls in Manitoba, will always hold a big place in my heart and I can’t wait to get the chance to see them again next year.