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Northern Pygmy-Owl


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Northern Pygmy-Owl Photo

The Northern Pygmy-Owl may be tiny, but it’s a ferocious hunter with a taste for songbirds. These owls are mostly dark brown and white, with long tails, smoothly rounded heads, and piercing yellow eyes. They hunt during the day by sitting quietly and surprising their prey. As a defensive measure, songbirds often gather to mob sitting owls until they fly away. Mobbing songbirds can help you find these unobtrusive owls, as can listening for their call, a high-pitched series of toots.

Keys to identification Help

Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The Northern Pygmy-Owl is small and compact, with a large, circular head that lacks ear tufts. The tail is long and the wings are fairly short and rounded.

  • Color Pattern

    Northern Pygmy-Owls are brown with fine white speckles on the head and white spots on the back. The back of the neck features two dark patches that look like eyespots. The eyes and bill are yellow.

  • Behavior

    Northern Pygmy-Owls hunt by day, making them easier to see than many owls, especially when they perch on tops of conifer trees. They eat mainly small birds, which they sometimes hunt at bird feeders. They fly in an undulating pattern, like a woodpecker.

  • Habitat

    They occupy montane forests of western North America, typically among conifers. Look for them in towns, especially during winter when they move to lower elevations.

Range Map Help

Northern Pygmy-Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

The very similar Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl lives in extreme southern Arizona and Texas (and south to Argentina). It is a brighter reddish-brown than the Northern Pygmy-Owl. The other similar owl species tend to be active at night, not during the day. Northern Saw-whet Owls have shorter tails and paler faces than Northern Pygmy-Owls. Flammulated Owls have dark eyes and grayer or redder plumage, with short ear tufts and short tails. Boreal Owls tend to live at higher elevation or farther north than Northern Pygmy-Owls; they are bigger and have short tails and very pale faces. Screech-owls such as the Western Screech-Owls have prominent ear tufts.

Regional Differences

Individuals along the wet Pacific slope are darker and browner and have a fairly slow trill; Northern Pygmy-Owls in the drier Rocky Mountains down through Mexico are lighter and grayer with a faster trill.

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.

Find This Bird

Northern Pygmy-Owls are widespread in the mountains of western North America, and they’re active during the day, which gives you a good chance of finding them. But they’re also small and unobtrusive as they sit and wait for prey to approach them, so you’ll need to be observant. The two best ways to find them involve your ears: you may hear them giving high, evenly spaced tooting calls. Or you may hear a commotion of chickadees and other small birds scolding and calling as they mob an owl they’ve discovered. Try to find the agitated birds and you may find the owl that they’re trying to drive away.

You Might Also Like

Naturalist’s Notebook: Northern Pygmy-Owl Brings Out The Birds, Living Bird, Autumn 2014.

Raptors and Rat Poison, Living Bird, Summer 2015.



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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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