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Elf Owl Life History



Elf Owls occupy diverse habitats. In southern Texas, they inhabit brushy thorn forest, characterized by Mexican ash, Texas persimmon, Mexican leadtree, southern hackberry, black willow, Texas cedar elm, mesquites, and acacias. Along the Rio Grande, they use riparian forest with Texas ebony, eastern cottonwood, black willow, and anacua. Desert habitats in western Texas, especially bosques (forests) and arroyos (washes) with honey mesquite and screwbean mesquite, also host this species, as do higher-elevation riparian corridors with willows, ashes, maples, cottonwoods, and walnuts. They may occur up to 5,400 feet elevation in pine-oak-juniper habitat as well. In the Chihuahuan Desert, they may nest in cavities in flower stalks of agave and yucca, or in riparian areas with Rio Grande cottonwood, black willow, Emory oak, gray oak and chinkapin oak. In the Sonoran Desert they use desert ironwood, ocotillo, palo verde, and tall columnar cactus such as saguaro. In the higher canyons, these small owls gravitate toward riparian stands with Arizona sycamore, Fremont cottonwood, and willows, ashes, oaks, junipers, netleaf hackberry, Arizona walnut, Arizona alder, and Chihuahuan pine. Elf Owls tolerate some development within their habitats, even accepting nest boxes in well-treed neighborhoods. In southern Mexico, their winter habitats closely resemble their nesting grounds.

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InsectsUnlike other small owls, Elf Owls eat mainly insects and arthropods rather than small mammals or birds. They are acrobatic and agile when foraging, capturing insects in flight, plucking them from vegetation (especially moths at flowers), or snatching them from the ground. With powerful vision and acute hearing, they hunt from low perches, sensitive to the slightest sound or movement, then quickly fly to capture prey with bill or talons. They even chase insects on foot and hang upside down from foliage to dislodge prey. Moths, beetles, and crickets form a large part of the diet, but they also eat grasshoppers, katydids, cicadas, mantids, stick insects, flies, lacewings, bugs, wasps, bees, spiders, centipedes, scorpions, vinegaroons, lizards, snakes, and occasionally rodents. With some prey, such as sphinx moths, wasps, or scorpions, they manipulate it carefully in the bill with their feet to remove unwanted parts such as wings or stingers. Back to top


Nest Placement

CavityNests are set in old woodpecker holes in trees or giant cactus, and sometimes in nest boxes.

Nest Description

Nests are set in old woodpecker holes in trees or giant cactus, and sometimes in nest boxes.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:1-5 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.1-1.2 in (2.7-3 cm)
Egg Width:0.9-1.0 in (2.3-2.5 cm)
Incubation Period:24 days
Nestling Period:28-33 days
Egg Description:


Condition at Hatching:

Hatchlings are covered with thick white down and are unable to sit up.

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Aerial ForagerElf Owls roost quietly in cavities during the day and are active at night. On their return to nesting areas, they establish territories quickly, with both male and female defending multiple nest holes against intrusions by other birds. Males mark territory around their nest holes with a pleasant yapping call. Their cavities are critical for both nesting and roosting, and if one nest fails, they often use a second for another attempt. During the nesting season, pairs forage over relatively small areas, ranging from one-half acre to 6.4 acres. Elf Owls are typically socially monogamous. They sometimes join other Elf Owls to mob a predator, such as a snake, and they migrate at night in small flocks, probably in family groups. Back to top


Restricted Range

Elf Owls are relatively common in a variety of wooded and desert habitats along the U.S.–Mexico border, although many of these habitats have no form of protection. Habitat loss owing to development, agriculture, grazing, mining, and other activities has reduced Elf Owl populations. The degree of decline is not well known, and in recent decades, the species appears to have expanded its range in the United States. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 72,000 and rates the species a 13 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of relatively low conservation concern. This species and others would benefit from reforestation of streamside habitats, elimination of grazing in these zones, and control of introduced tamarisk (saltcedar).

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Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sibley, D. (2014). The North American Bird Guide. 2nd Edition. Christopher Helm, London, United Kingdom.

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