I’ve known for many years that poet Sue Goyette has a special thing for birds. After all, her first collection of published poems in an award-winning career was titled “The True Names of Birds”. Her fascination was obvious Friday night at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia Awards Gala when she mentioned a tiny saw-whet owl named Archie in accepting the 2012 Atlantic Poetry Prize..
Archie was present. Hope Swinimer and Nicole Payne had ported him in from Seaforth to celebrate the nomination of my book about Hope for Wildlife in the non-fiction category. Goyette made several trips to the back of the room during the evening to see him. She was not alone. Writers and literary supporters flocked to his cage all evening.
A saw-whet owl is a little gem of a bird. They are only about 20 cm long and weigh on average 100 grams, about the size of a robin. Because they are nocturnal and very small, few Nova Scotians ever see them, even though the saw-whet is one of the three most common owls in our province. While it’s found across Canada, its Latin name (Aegolius acadicus) shows that it was first identified in our region.
The saw-whet was also named here. Early lumbermen using two-man saws soon realized that the alarm call of the little owl that fled when they knocked down its nesting tree was the same sound they heard when they used a file to “whet” or sharpen their saws. Because it’s found across Canada and in much of the United States, the saw-whet has the expected bevy of localized names, including saw-filer, Acadian owl, sparrow owl, the sawyer and white-fronted owl,
On Friday, Archie got all the reactions normal for a saw-whet. There were scattered shrieks of surprise when people realized he was alive. Saw-whets are ambush hunters, sitting like bumps on a branch until a mouse or vole scurries by. They also freeze as their major means of defense, sometimes with one wing drawn across their chest vampire-like to hide white markings. In the wild, it works. Caged and indoors, people’s first reaction is that they are either statues or stuffed.
Then there’s the matter of size. It couldn’t have been the Friday crowd because I’ve heard it every time I’ve been at a wildlife event with a saw-whet present: “Ooooh! Look at the baby owl!” Incredulous people aren’t easily convinced Archie and Company are fully grown. In fact, I once informed a woman at a Hope for Wildlife open house that the saw-whet she was describing as a “baby owl” was completely mature, only to be told in choice language I was wrong and she knew a baby owl when she saw one.
Goyette informed her audience that Archie was one of the things that made her award-winning night complete. Members of that audience commented as they left that he was the star of the night. All this was a reflection of what I already knew: when someone finally sees one of these smallest of owls, they fall in love with it.
Ray MacLeod is a freelance outdoors writer. He lives in Waverley.