Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

Glaucidium brasilianum

The most widespread pygmy-owl species in South America, ferruginous pygmy-owls are tiny reddish-brown owls roughly the same size as an eastern bluebird. Thriving in both desert landscapes of the extreme southern US and in tropical rainforests of South America, they are a mostly diurnal species, hunting for insects and lizards between dawn and dusk.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl on alert

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl on alert

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perched on a branch in the forest

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perched on a branch in the forest

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in natural habitat

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in natural habitat

Appearance & Identification

What do Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls look like?

A short, compact owl, with disproportionately large feet, ferruginous pygmy-owls are similar in appearance to the northern pygmy-owl, sharing the same brown and white streaked plumage and distinctive ‘false eye’ black and white markings on the back of their neck.

Ferruginous owls have whitish underparts, streaked with reddish brown, with a barred red-brown and darker brown tail. The wings and upper back are dark gray to rufous-brown, and the head is brown with fine light streaks. On both sides of the neck are large black spots, ringed with white, which look like eyes.

Facial markings include buff feathering around the eyes, white eyebrows, and narrow whitish streaking across the otherwise brown crown. White is the primary color of the chin and lower face, and the eyes and bill are yellow.

Females are similar to males, but as well as being slightly larger, they also frequently have more rufous coloring in their plumage.

Young ferruginous owls are similarly marked to adults but have an overall grayer wash to their head and nape, with the neck spots less bold and sootier in color.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in natural woodland habitat

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in natural woodland habitat

How big are Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls?

Standing on average 15 cm (5.9 in), ferruginous pygmy-owls are among the smallest owl species, and are marginally larger than the tiny elf owl. They are stocky and compact, with females slightly larger and heavier than males.

  • Length: 15 cm to 17 cm (5.9 in to 6.7 in)
  • Wingspan: 38 cm (15 in)
  • Weight: 62 g (2.2 oz)
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perching on a branch

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perching on a branch

Calls & Sounds

What sound does a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl make?

Among the most commonly heard vocalizations of ferruginous pygmy-owls is a repeated ‘took-took’ whistled call, repeated rapidly to signal a claim to a territory or early in the breeding season to advertise for mates.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl sounding a warning alarm

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl sounding a warning alarm


What do Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls eat?

The diet of ferruginous pygmy-owls is varied, including large insects such as grasshoppers, cicadas, crickets, beetles, and moths, as well as scorpions, lizards, birds, and rodents, including pygmy mice and harvest mice.

What do Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl chicks eat?

For the first three weeks of their life, ferruginous pygmy-owl chicks are brought food to the nest by their father, who passes prey items to his mate for her to rip into small pieces and feed to individual owlets. By 3 to 4 weeks, nestlings begin to tear prey themselves, by which time the female also hunts for prey and deposits into the nest cavity.

Prey is mainly insects, including grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles, although as owlets grow, small skinks may also be brought to the nest.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl with caught prey

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl with caught prey

Habitat & Distribution

What is the habitat of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl?

Thorny scrubland landscapes offer an ideal landscape for ferruginous pygmy-owls, providing cover from larger birds of prey and plenty of foraging opportunities for insects and lizards. Thickets and arid landscapes with ironwood, mesquite, acacia, and saguaro are favored nesting spots and are important roosting locations all year round.

What is the range of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl?

The range of ferruginous pygmy-owls is discontinuous, extending from southern Arizona down the western coast of Mexico and to the east, from the extreme southeastern tip of Texas through Mexico’s east coast through Central America into South America, where scattered populations are present in the west of the continent, but the presence grows towards the east, extending from Colombia to Argentina in the south, but absent from a large area of northeastern Brazil.

Where do Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls live?

Ferruginous pygmy-owls are present in small border regions of the southern US but are increasingly populous from Mexico through Central America and into South America.

Resident populations can be found in parts of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. In South America, ferruginous pygmy-owls can be seen in parts of Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in forest habitat

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in forest habitat

How rare are Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls?

In the United States, due to their limited range and preference for remote habitats, sightings of ferruginous owls are an uncommon to rare species, with only up to 117 individuals estimated to be present in Arizona in 2006, and a few thousand more in Texas.

Globally, population estimates for ferruginous pygmy-owls are in the range of 20 and 50 million individuals, and it is classed as a common species in Mexico, Central America in much of eastern South America.

Where can you see Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls in the US?

Much of the United States is way outside of the distribution range of ferruginous pygmy-owls, with only two distinct regions home to the species, in the Sonoran Desert landscapes of southern Arizona and in southeastern Texas.

In these regions, Arizona’s Altar Valley and in Texas at the King Ranch, Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and San Miguelito Ranch offer potential opportunities for sightings.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perching in the forest

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perching in the forest

Lifespan & Predation

How long do Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls live?

In the wild, ferruginous pygmy-owls can be expected to live for a maximum of 6 or 7 years, while those kept in captivity have a longer lifespan, estimated at 9 to 10 years. Breeding occurs annually, from one year of age.

What are the predators of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls?

Nest predation is an issue for ferruginous pygmy-owls, with raccoons and bullsnakes recorded as common cavity raiders for eggs and young. Great horned owls and Cooper’s hawks have both been observed to prey on adult and juvenile ferruginous pygmy-owls.

Are Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls protected?

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protects ferruginous pygmy-owls in the United States, prohibiting killing, injuring, capturing, or trading birds of this species, or their eggs, young, and feathers. Nest sites are also protected against being destroyed or damaged.

Are Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls endangered?

Globally, ferruginous pygmy-owls are rated as a species of least concern. However, due to their limited numbers and risk of habitat degradation in the United States, they have been classified as Endangered in Arizona and Threatened in Texas.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perching on a moss-covered branch

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perching on a moss-covered branch

Nesting & Breeding

Where do Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls nest?

Ferruginous pygmy-owls do not build their own nests, relying instead on the evacuated cavities drilled out by woodpeckers and previously used by other species. Observations have recorded ferruginous pygmy-owls removing nesting material from brown-crested flycatchers’ nest cavities before setting up home there themselves.

Nests are usually in the trunks of trees, including oak, mesquite, cottonwood, and ash, as well as in large cacti, particularly saguaro. Termite mounds are also sometimes used as nesting locations.

When do Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls nest?

Pairs of ferruginous pygmy-owls begin scoping out potential nest sites from February onwards. Eggs are laid between late March and mid-June, with a peak in April to May and only one clutch is laid each season, unless a nest fails and a second, replacement clutch is attempted.

Incubation, by the female alone, lasts for between 23 and 28 days. Fledging takes place between 21 and 29 days, with early nest leavers far less likely to survive.

What do Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl eggs look like?

Like the vast majority of owl species, ferruginous pygmy-owls lay plain white, unmarked eggs. Eggs, which are slightly rounded, measure on average 29 mm by 23 mm (1.1 in by 0.9 in). A typical clutch contains between three and seven eggs.

Do Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls mate for life?

Long-term bonds form between ferruginous pygmy-owls from their first breeding season, aged one year. Observations indicate that pairs breed annually, and it’s common for the same pair to raise young together in several successive years.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owlets looking out from their nest hole

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owlets looking out from their nest hole


Are Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls aggressive?

Aggressive posturing and vocalizations may be heard between rival birds, but no observations of physical interactions have been reported. A two-note ‘pee-witt’ alarm call is heard from females when intruders approach the nest site and repeated until the threat subsides.

Where do Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls sleep at night?

Roost spots are variable and different sites are used each night. During the breeding season, females roost in the nest chamber overnight, while males remain a short distance away, finding a sheltered spot in the lower canopy. Ferruginous pygmy-owls are chiefly diurnal, hunting during daylight and resting from dusk onwards each evening.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl resting high up in a tree

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl resting high up in a tree


Do Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls migrate?

Ferruginous pygmy-owls are year-round residents in their range, with some dispersal evident post-breeding but no evidence of long-distance or regular migration occurring.

Are Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls native to the US?

Two small isolated regions of the US have resident ferruginous pygmy-owls, in south-central Arizona and the extreme southern tip of Texas. The main population of the species is found to the south, along the eastern and western coasts of Mexico, and further into South America.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perching on a thorny branch

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl perching on a thorny branch


What is the difference between Northern Pygmy-Owl and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl?

Similar in size and coloring, there are some subtle differences between northern pygmy-owls and ferruginous pygmy-owls that help with telling the two species apart.

There is some overlap between the range of these two tiny owls, with ferruginous pygmy-owls present further south than their northern counterparts, with a range that extends deep into Mexico, with a limited presence in the United States.

Both species are diurnal, mostly active at dawn and dusk, with northern pygmy-owls typically found at higher elevations. In appearance, the main difference is seen in the forehead markings, which are streaked in ferruginous pygmy-owls and spotted in northern pygmy-owls.

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Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Glaucidium brasilianum





15cm to 17cm





Other birds in the Owls family

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