Northern Pygmy-Owl Life History

Habitat

Habitat 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

Food

Food 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

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest 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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Behavior

Behavior 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

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernNorthern 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, with possibly a small decline between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 80,000 individuals, with 53% in the U.S., 18% in Canada, and 27% in Mexico. They score an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2016 State of the Birds Report. 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 populations of woodpeckers.Back to top

Backyard Tips

Unlike screech-owls and Northern Saw-whet Owls, Northern Pygmy-Owls are not known to take up residence in human-made nest boxes.

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Credits

Holt, Denver W. and Julie L. Petersen. 2000. Northern Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium gnoma), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski, Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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