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Northern Pygmy-Owl Life History


ForestsThese owls are found in forests ranging from deciduous woods along streams to high-elevation fir and spruce forests at timberline. They also live in cottonwood, aspen, and mixed-conifer forests. In Mexico, they live in pine-oak and scrub forests, and in the southernmost part of their range in Honduras they live in highland pine and cloud forests. In winter, Northern Pygmy-Owls move to lower elevations and may come into towns, where they may start hunting songbirds at bird feeders.Back to top


BirdsNorthern Pygmy-Owls mostly eat small birds, such as hummingbirds, chickadees, warblers, and sparrows, as well as small mammals, including shrews, moles, and chipmunks. However, they occasionally attack prey much larger than themselves, such as Northern Bobwhite and California Quail. They also eat insects such as beetles, butterflies, crickets, and dragonflies, as well as reptiles such as lizards and skinks.Back to top


Nest Placement

CavityNorthern Pygmy-Owls nest in holes in trees. They never dig their own cavities, but instead rely on cavities carved by rot or woodpeckers. They are not known to use human-made nest boxes.

Nest Description

Northern Pygmy-Owls lay their eggs in the debris at the bottom of tree cavities, where there may be wood chips, decomposing leaves, or nests of other birds. Sometimes they add linings such as feathers, strips of cedar bark, and moss.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-7 eggs
Egg Length:1.0-1.3 in (2.5-3.2 cm)
Egg Width:0.9-1.0 in (2.2-2.5 cm)
Egg Description:White and glossy.
Condition at Hatching:Covered in white down, with eyes closed.
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Aerial ForagerThe Northern Pygmy-Owl hunts mostly by day. They fly in an undulating pattern of rapid wing beats interrupted by closed-wing glides, similar to woodpeckers. Northern Pygmy-Owls are monogamous, at least within one year's breeding season. Males attract females to their nest site by perching at the entrance and giving a tooting call. Only the female incubates, while the male hunts and brings food back to the female and the nestlings. The main predators of Northern Pygmy-Owls are larger owls and raptors as well as some mammals such as weasels. Small birds such as nuthatches, robins, crossbills, wrens, creepers, hummingbirds, blackbirds, warblers, and jays frequently mob Northern Pygmy-Owls as they do other raptors—this behavior seems particularly bold considering small birds are what pygmy-owls eat. Some people have suggested that the eyespots on the back of the Northern Pygmy-Owl’s neck help deter mobbing birds.Back to top


Low Concern

Northern Pygmy-Owl numbers are difficult to estimate because the birds are uncommon and hard to count with standardized surveys. Best estimates indicate their populations have been fairly constant over the last half-century, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 180,000 individuals and rates them 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Like other cavity nesters, pygmy-owls need standing dead trees as nest sites. Forest management practices that remove dead wood can reduce habitat quality for them. Pygmy-owls rely on other species to excavate holes for them, which makes them indirectly dependent on woodpecker populations.

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Holt, D. W., and J. L. Petersen (2000). Northern Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium gnoma), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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Learn more at Birds of the World