Don’t let its cuteness fool you: the little owl from this viral video is actually a fearsome, rodent-eating predator. It just so happens to also be tiny and adorable.
The commotion-causing owl in question is a very young northern saw-whet owl, captured in a viral video interacting with a Boulder County, Colorado sheriff's deputy. Even though it only recently emerged from its nest, the tiny owl in the video is actually almost full-sized. “You could stick one in a tomato paste can,” says Glenn Proudfoot, a research associate and owl expert at Vassar College.
Despite their diminutive size, these little owls shouldn’t be underestimated. “At this age they’re kind of cute and roly-poly and fuzzy,” says Wildlife rehabilitation coordinator Michael Tincher from the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program (he also called them “clueless”). “But in another few weeks they will grow a brain and become very, very fierce predators,” hunting small mammals like voles, shrews, pocket gophers and mice, as well as insects and other birds. Nature’s adorable pest control.
As it faces off with the sheriff’s deputy, the northern saw-whet in the video bobs and swivels its head while clacking its beak, which Tincher says is pretty typical behavior for a young owl. The head bobbing and swiveling may help it see and hear better, and the beak clacking signals agitation. Some of the bird’s fluffiness may also come from the owl plumping up its feathers to look bigger to a potential predator, says John Confer, scholar in residence at Ithaca College. “It’s probably doing what instinct tells it makes it a little less likely to be eaten by the predator.”
The owl’s name comes from its distinctive song, which sounds like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone. Northern saw-whet owls are found in forests spanning most of North America. But as for what this little guy is doing on a road? “At this age, the world is their jungle gym,” Tincher says. “They’ll come out of the trees, they’ll bop around on the ground, they’ll flutter up the bushes and low branches and kind of ping-pong their way up the trees.”
This kind of behavior makes young raptors like this one very vulnerable to being hit by vehicles. If a driver comes across one, Tincher says, “Send us a picture.” He also recommends calling the local rehabilitation center for instructions. If the bird isn’t injured, these might include gently shooing it away or moving it to the side of the road.
Fortunately, none of those steps were necessary for this tiny owl, which took the deputy’s measure, then took off—flying away safely.