- ORDER: Strigiformes
- FAMILY: Strigidae
The world’s smallest raptor, the diminutive Elf Owl, lives in dry thorn forests, deserts, pine-oak forests, and riparian woodlands of the southern border of the United States and Mexico. Like many of the songbirds in these habitats, Elf Owls nest in old woodpecker holes and similar cavities, which provide relief from heat, shelter from rain, and protection from predators. At night, Elf Owls emerge to hunt insects and other small prey, the male giving puppylike calls that mark its small territory.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Elf Owls are strictly nocturnal, so listen and look for them on an outing along a quiet desert or canyon road at night. Remember that in the United States and northern Mexico, Elf Owls are present only in summer. They can be numerous in the right habitat, so listening for the yapping call is key. They also often hunt around lights that attract insects at night.
- Mochuelo de Los Saguaros (Spanish)
- Chevêchette des saguaros (French)
Within their range, ELf Owls may nest in yards with plenty of trees, especially if nest boxes are provided. Visit our NestWatch project for details on how to build a nest box for Elf Owls as well as general tips for successful birdhouses.
- Cool Facts
- It’s hard to believe how small an Elf Owl really is—no larger than a juice box! It's the world's smallest raptor.
- Elf Owls rely on abandoned woodpecker cavities for their nests, using nest holes made by Golden-fronted, Acorn, Gila, Ladder-backed, and Arizona Woodpeckers, as well as Gilded Flickers.
- Lots of raptors catch snakes for food—but Elf Owls do something stranger. They catch threadsnakes (also known as blind snakes) and bring them back to the nest, alive, where the snakes eat parasites that might otherwise harm the owl's nestlings.
- Elf Owl pairs sometimes band together during the nesting season to mob predators such as snakes, larger owls, and mammals. “Mobbing” is thought to deter predators by eliminating their ability to surprise prey; it may also instruct younger birds how to recognize predators. In turn, Elf Owls are mobbed by gangs of smaller birds such as Bushtits, Bridled Titmice, wrens, warblers, and even larger species such as American Robins.
- Elf Owls, like many desert birds, require cavities for nesting. Nest trees (or cactus) sometimes support many nest holes in a condominium-like assemblage that can include Brown-crested Flycatchers, Gilded Flickers, Gila Woodpeckers, Elegant Trogons, Western Screech-Owls, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers.
- Nests of screech-owls and Elf Owls in the southwestern U.S. often host tree ants, which do not harm the owls but rather eat the remains of their meals and consume nest parasites.
- The oldest known wild Elf Owl lived to at least 5 years, 10 months old.