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Northern Pygmy-Owl

Glaucidium gnoma ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: STRIGIDAE

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.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.3–7.1 in
16–18 cm
Wingspan
15 in
38 cm
Weight
2.1–2.5 oz
60–70 g
Relative Size
Smaller but plumper than a Mountain Bluebird; larger than an Elf Owl.
Other Names
  • Mochuelo californiano (Spanish)
  • Chevêchette des rocheuses (French)

Cool Facts

  • When they find extra food, Northern Pygmy-Owls often cache their prey in tree cavities, or by hanging the prey on thorns, as shrikes are famous for doing.
  • Most owls have asymmetrically placed ears as well as flattened facial discs around the eyes. Both of these features are adaptations that give them better hearing. Interestingly, Northern Pygmy-Owls lack these features, and this may be an outcome of their diurnal habits and greater reliance on vision.
  • Small birds such as hummingbirds, wrens, warblers, jays, and blackbirds often mob Northern Pygmy-Owls—in fact, you may be able to find these owls by following a noisy commotion of songbirds focused on one spot.
  • Northern Pygmy-Owls raise a pair of tufts on the sides of their head when threatened by a predator, such as a hawk or a cat. They also have a pair of spots on the back of the neck that look a little like eyes. Scientists think these markings may help fool attackers or mobbers into thinking the owl is watching them.
  • Northern Pygmy-Owls, although not much larger than House Sparrows, sometimes take prey up to three times their own size, such as Northern Bobwhite, Northern Flicker, and even chickens!
  • The oldest recorded Northern Pygmy-Owl was a male, and at least 3 years, 11 months old when he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Oregon.

Habitat


Forest

These 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.

Food


Birds

Northern 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.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–7 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1–1.3 in
2.5–3.2 cm
Egg Width
0.9–1 in
2.2–2.5 cm
Incubation Period
28 days
Nestling Period
23 days
Egg Description
White and glossy.
Condition at Hatching
Covered in white down, with eyes closed.
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.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Northern 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.

Behavior


Aerial Forager

The 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.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least 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, 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.

Credits

Range Map Help

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

Migration

Resident (nonmigratory). Northern Pygmy-Owls often move to lower elevations during winter and return upslope in spring.

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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