One of North America’s tiniest owl species, flammulated owls are named for the flame-like markings that are present on their faces, back, wings and underparts. Their plumage allows them to blend into their forest habitats and remain elusive and rarely seen.
15cm to 17cm
43g to 63g
Two different color types of flammulated owls exist, with grayish coloring prominent in the northwestern Great Basin Range and a reddish variation further to the southeastern part of their range.
In both color variations, flammulated owls are brownish-gray barred with small white and rufous markings. Their underparts are paler, streaked with buff and white. Gray birds are paler with finer pale feathering mixed in with their mottled plumage, while the reddish variation has a visible chestnut-colored wash.
Flammulated owls have rounded heads, with a faint facial disk and small, often indistinct ear tufts. They have fiery orange facial markings and deep brown eyes.
Females are identical to males in coloring and markings and can be told apart only when the two sexes are side by side, as females are marginally larger and heavier than males.
Juveniles are mostly barred with gray and dusky markings, with dull rusty gray or grayish-white streaked underparts.
Flammulated Owl in forest habitat
One of the world’s tiniest owls, the flammulated owl is less than a quarter the size of the giant of the North American owl world, the great gray owl. Males are slightly smaller and lighter in weight than females.
The deep, throaty hoot of a flammulated owl does not match its tiny stature and can confuse observers who are expecting to see a much larger bird.
Flammulated owls are able to project their low-pitched hooting so it sounds as if it is coming from elsewhere and call from high up in the crowns of tall pines. During courtship, females use a mewing call to beg for food.
The diet of a flammulated owl is primarily insect-based, with crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, bugs, and moths among the most commonly caught prey. Larger prey may also be eaten occasionally, including small voles, mice, and songbirds, although insects and invertebrates are by far the largest element of their food intake.
Young flammulated owls are fed on a diet that is similar to that of adults, consisting of grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles. Occasionally larger items of prey are brought to the nest site by the male, including shrews, bats, voles, and mice. These are then ripped into smaller pieces by the female and fed to her young.
Mid-elevation, dry, mature pine forests provide a favorite nesting habitat for flammulated owls, with ponderosa pine the preferred species. Other conifers, as well as mixed aspen and oak woodlands with a densely vegetated forest floor, are also popular choices. Vital factors include an abundance and diversity of insect prey and a semi-arid climate.
Flammulated owls breed in scattered locations across western North America. Their distribution range is mainly centered on the western regions of the United States, but breeding extends from southern British Columbia and Alberta in Canada, southwards through the US into northern Mexico.
Winter migration takes the breeding populations further south into Mexico and beyond, as far as Guatemala and El Salvador.
Flammulated owls have a patchy distribution and are not evenly distributed across all the western US states.
The species is known to be widely present throughout Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Established nesting grounds also are found in the montane forests of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Texas.
Flammulated owl populations are largely undocumented and it’s impossible to say how accurate the Partners in Flight estimated global population figure of 12,000 individuals is. Recent studies have indicated that they are perhaps the ‘most abundant owl of western pine forests.
Flammulated Owl in nest cavity
Across the western United States, dry montane pine forests offer perfect landscapes for hunting and nesting for flammulated owls. Locations in which sightings may be likely include Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and Yosemite National Park in California.
Daytime sightings of flammulated owls are rare, due to their impressive camouflaged plumage that allows them to blend in unseen among the bark and branches of tall pines. Once darkness falls, the male’s tell-tale low hooting is a giveaway sign that one is nearby.
British Columbia and Alberta are the only two Canadian provinces with established breeding populations, and forested mountainous regions offer the best chances of a sighting.
Kootenay National Park in British Columbia and Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta have the exact habitat types that are preferred by flammulated owls and may offer opportunities for seeing or hearing one.
Breeding is possible in yearling birds, but many individuals delay breeding and pair up with a mate the first time when they are at least two years old. The average life expectancy for flammulated owls is between 8 years and a maximum of 14 years.
Squirrels are a leading predator of the eggs and young of flammulated owls, raiding nest cavities. Avian predators may occasionally attack adult birds, including Cooper’s hawks and great horned owls.
Canada’s Migratory Birds Convention Act and the United States’ Migratory Bird Treaty Act legislate against flammulated owls being killed or harmed, traded for sale, or taken into captivity. It is also an offense to destroy or damage nest sites or take eggs, feathers, or nestlings.
Currently rated as a species of least concern, flammulated owls are not under any immediate threat of becoming endangered. Habitat loss is a potential concern, combined with a low annual reproductive rate for the species, meaning that future conservation may be required.
Flammulated owls use existing cavities as their nests and do not build their own. Natural hollows in tree trunks or snags are used, as well as disused chambers excavated by woodpeckers. In the absence of a cavity, an artificial nest box may be used.
Eggs are laid on the cavity base, which is left bare with no additional nesting materials used as a lining. Nests are not reused in subsequent seasons.
Pairs form or reunite shortly after arriving on breeding grounds from April onwards, with the earliest eggs laid in late April. May is the peak month for eggs to be laid, but later broods or replacement clutches may be as late as mid-June.
Only the female incubates, remaining in the nest cavity for between 21 and 24 days before the eggs hatch. During this time, males bring food to their mates.
Usually three or four creamy white, semi-glossy eggs are laid by female flammulated owls. Eggs measure a maximum of 32 mm by 26 mm (1.3 in by 1.1 in) and are oval in shape.
Long-term pair bonds form between male and female flammulated owls, but they do not always last a lifetime.
Observations from Colorado over a number of years recorded a ‘same mate retention rate’ of 74 percent from year to year. Individuals have a strong record of fidelity to a previous nest site and as pairs separate after breeding to migrate, many do reunite in the spring.
Despite being territorial and keen to assert the boundaries of their own patch, flammulated owls have a reputation as being mild and unaggressive, Shrieking and chasing are usually as intense as any confrontation gets, and interactions with intruders rarely escalate to a physical attack.
A nocturnal species, flammulated owls sleep by day and hunt by night. The female roosts in the nest cavity with her eggs or young during the breeding season, but apart from this roosting is always done among the foliage of the upper branches of a tall tree.
In the breeding season, males find a nearby daytime roosting spot and remain motionless tucked against a tree trunk until night falls.
A fully migratory species, flammulated owls breed in the western regions of North America, from southwestern Canada, through the western US and into northwest Mexico, with an isolated breeding population in northeast Mexico.
Post-breeding, from August onwards, they begin their southward migrations deeper into Mexico, reaching as far south as Guatemala and El Salvador, returning north to breed the following spring, in April or May.
Flammulated owls breed in the US but no established wintering grounds used by the species are located north of Mexico. Occasional winter sightings have been reported, but are not sufficient for it to be classified as a resident species.
The word ‘flammulated’ has Latin roots, meaning flame-colored, and refers to the fiery, flamelike markings on their plumage that help provide effective camouflage among the tree trunks in their forest habitats.
Arguably the world’s most instantly recognizable owl species (thanks possibly to the “celebrity” of Hedwig in the Harry Potter series), the snowy owl is a powerful and fearsome presence on Arctic tundra landscapes. It preys on lemmings and voles and will also successfully chase and capture much larger mammals and birds.
Despite being one of North America’s tiniest owls, the northern pygmy-owl has a reputation as being one of the most bloodthirsty, fearlessly hunting and carrying off prey up to three times its own size.
Great Horned Owl
An unmistakable species, the great horned owl is one of North America’s largest and heaviest owls, with clearly visible ear tufts on each side of the head. They are also among the most common and widespread owl species in much of the Americas, although sightings are rather rare due to their nocturnal lifestyle.
A common and widespread owl species across the eastern United States, the eastern screech-owl has adapted to survive in a diverse range of habitats, in both suburban neighborhoods and rural forested landscapes. Seemingly unfazed by human presence (at a distance), eastern screech owls readily roost in nest boxes hung in backyards.
Western screech-owls are a relatively widespread and abundant species in the western regions of North America, found in a range of habitat types from woodlands and suburban parks and gardens with mature tree cover to the arid mesquite landscapes of the Sonoran Desert.
A small woodland owl native to eastern and south Asia, on two recorded occasions oriental scops-owls have strayed as far as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as vagrant visitors. These long-distance detours are highly unusual and the species is far more likely to be spotted in forested regions of east China.
Great Gray Owl
Unmistakable due to their sheer size, great gray owls are the largest North American owls in terms of size but not the heaviest. This honor goes to the snowy owl, which is on average at least 10 cm shorter in length and more than 1 kg heavier.
Unique among North America’s birds, burrowing owls are the only species on the continent that nest and roost below the ground. Usually, an abandoned prairie dog burrow is used, but occasionally they will excavate their own tunnel that extends deep into the soil.
A small owl, resident in northern taiga landscapes, boreal owls are widespread but are rarely seen due to their favored habitats of dense coniferous and mixed forests, their secretive behavior and their nocturnal hunting habits.
Originally confined to forests and uplands in eastern North America, the barred owl has extended its range into the Pacific Northwest in recent decades and is now widespread across southern Canada. Their well-known ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call can be heard resounding through woodlands in early spring.
North America’s smallest owl species, elf owls are widespread across the desert landscapes of the US-Mexico borders. Cavities in saguaro cacti are one of their favorite nesting spots, although they are also likely to use abandoned woodpecker hollows in trees, fence posts and utility poles in more urban settings.
Spotted owls are a species of intense conservation concern across North America. Numbers have declined steeply since the increase in logging activities across the Pacific Northwest from the 1970s onwards. Populations have now reached worryingly low levels, with only an estimated 6000 to 15,000 individuals believed to remain in the wild.
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.
Northern Hawk Owl
Found in northern regions of North America, northeastern Europe and Siberia, northern hawk owls are unusual among owls for being active during the day rather than the night. The species is also known for its hawklike behavior, flight and body shape.
Mottled owls are native to Central America and much of northern South America. Barely any records exist of the species within the United States although they are present in various regions of Mexico. A nocturnal hunter with a varied diet, the mottled owl preys on small rodents, birds, insects and small reptiles, scanning the forest floor from a perch, waiting for an opportunity to swoop.
A small, noisy owl that thrives in montane forests from Arizona to Nicaragua, the whiskered screech-owl is named for the tufted bristles on its face. A highly nocturnal bird, the first alert to the presence of a whiskered screech-owl is usually hearing its distinctive trilled song resounding through moonlit woodlands.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
One of the smallest owl species of North America, the northern saw-whet owl is common and widespread across coniferous and mixed species forests of Canada and the United States. However, its nocturnal habits and secretive behavior means that sightings remain rare and the species is not particularly well-studied.
One of the world’s least-documented owl species, the stygian owl has a dark plumage and is found in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Vagrant visitors have occasionally been recorded in Texas and Florida, but otherwise it is not usually spotted in much of North America.
The Eurasian Scops Owl is one of the smaller members of the Strigidae family of owls being smaller even than the Little Owl. It is one of the few European owls that leaves its breeding grounds and migrates south during the winter.
The Tawny Owl is a carnivorous night hunter common throughout Europe and western Asia with pockets found within the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It shouldn’t be confused with the Tawny Fish-owl of East Asia, the Tawny-bellied Screech owl of South America nor the Tawny-browed owl found on the eastern side of South America. The tawny owl is also occasionally referred to as the Brown Owl.
Unlike most owls, this medium sized bird is often seen hunting during daylight hours, mainly around dawn and dusk and particularly across farmland and in grassland, marsh and moorland areas.
As well as its distinctive ear tufts, perhaps the most striking feature of a long-eared owl are its piercing bright orange eyes. However, as the UKs most nocturnal owl species, its rare that they are out in daylight hours, so itd be a really rare event to see one with your own eyes.
The Little Owl is the UK’s smallest bird of prey and a fascinating species to observe. Introduced over a century ago, these newcomers from the European mainland have become a regular sighting in farmland across much of England.
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