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.
Compact, stocky owls, with rounded heads, small ear tufts and a relatively long tail, marked with dark barring.
Northern pygmy-owls have a brown, gray and white streaked plumage that offers excellent camouflage against the forest tree trunks and branches. Some variation exists between individuals’ coloring from a rufous-brown to a darker gray-brown wash. Upperparts are mid-brown with white spots and streaks, and underparts are paler, marked with fine dark streaks. A mottled brownish bib runs across the upper breast.
A distinctive plumage feature is visible on the upper body of a northern pygmy-owl. On the back of the neck are two ‘false eyes’: black oval-shaped patches ringed with white. These are believed to be an adaptation to deter predators. Their actual facial markings are not especially well-defined, with a small, pale facial disc, short white eyebrows, a yellowish-brown bill and piercing yellow eyes.
Female and male northern pygmy-owls are alike in plumage but females are often slightly darker than males.
Juvenile northern pygmy owls can be distinguished from adults due to their dark beak and the presence of more intense spotty markings on the crown.
One of North America’s smallest owls, the northern pygmy-owl is between the size of a house sparrow and an eastern bluebird. Females are heavier and slightly larger than males.
Northern Pygmy-Owl perched in a tree
The most frequently heard call of a northern pygmy-owl is a relatively high-pitched toot, repeated at intervals of around two seconds, and used as an advertising call by males early in the breeding season. A rapid series of trilling notes is used as an alarm or distress call.
Northern Pygmy-Owl looking for prey resting in woodland habitat
Northern pygmy owls hunt during the daytime, watching from perches in trees to pounce on prey in the foliage or on the floor below. Their diet consists mainly of small mammals, songbirds, insects, and some reptiles and amphibians.
Despite their small size, northern pygmy-owls regularly pull off gravity-defying captures, lifting birds and animals up to three times their size including quails and chickens. Prey is often cached in a tree which they return to at a later date.
Small mammals, including mice, voles, and lizards are brought to the nest by the male and initially torn into easy-to-swallow chunks by the female.
Large insects, including cicadas and grasshoppers, are also common prey fed to young. The female resumes hunting once her young has reached around 9 days old.
Northern Pygmy-Owl looking for prey
Resident in both coniferous and deciduous habitats, northern pygmy-owls are most commonly found in open forested environments, hunting from perches in trees around the forest edges. Their preferred nest sites are natural or abandoned cavities in deadwood standing trees, with mixed spruce and fir seeming to be the preferred species.
Northern pygmy-owls are native to western North America, from Alaska and British Columbia in the north, southwards through California and Arizona to Mexico, and occasionally reach as far south as Guatemala and Honduras.
Precise population data is not available, but northern pygmy-owls are known to have established populations in British Columbia, Alberta, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and into western Mexico.
In parts of their range, northern pygmy-owls are considered relatively common and locally abundant in areas with suitable forested landscapes.
As they are active during daylight hours, the opportunities for sightings are higher than for many other owl species. One possible clue to their presence is loud, squawking mobbings from small songbird species, hoping to survive a northern pygmy-owl’s hunting attempt.
Northern Pygmy-Owl perched on top of a decaying tree stump
California’s Redwood National Park, Washington’s Olympic National Park, and Wyoming’s Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks all regularly report sightings of northern pygmy-owls in their forested landscapes.
British Columbia is only resident in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and southwestern Alberta and in the southern Yukon Territories, and it remains a relatively rare species in the country.
Scarce along the Pacific coast, it is slightly more common inland, and sightings have been recorded in Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta.
Northern Pygmy-Owl sitting on a branch in wet woodland
Little information is available about the lifespan or first breeding age of northern pygmy-owls. The oldest owl recaptured by a banding study was 3 years and 11 months, and using comparisons from similar species, an average lifespan of 6 to 7 years is estimated. Age at first breeding is believed to be one year old.
Larger raptors, including red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, opportunistically prey on northern pygmy-owls, but the tiny owls’ have a defense adaptation that helps them to avoid being targeted.
The ‘false eye’ feature on their neck plumage gives the impression that they are watching potential predators, and may deter them from attacking.
Northern pygmy-owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 in the US and by the Migratory Birds Convention Act in Canada. This legislation bans the deliberate killing or injuring of the species and makes it an offense to capture or trade these birds. Their eggs, young, feathers, and nest sites are also protected.
There is not much available data on the stability of population levels for the northern pygmy-owl, but they are rated as a species of least concern globally. Forest management practices that lead to habitat loss, including clearance of deadwood snags from woodlands, may threaten their long-term future.
Northern Pygmy-Owl sitting on a thorny branch
A secondary cavity-nesting species, northern pygmy-owls lay their eggs and raise their young in natural hollows in deadwood trees or repurpose empty chambers that have been excavated by other bird species, usually located between 2.4 m to 7.6 m (8 ft and 25 ft) above ground. Moss or strips of bark may be added as a lining.
Unlike other small owl species, northern pygmy-owls are not known to use manmade nest boxes.
The nesting habits of northern pygmy–owls’ breeding habits remain largely undocumented and there’s little precise or verified information available yet about the timings of the breeding season or egg laying. Males have been heard advertising for mates from February onwards, with eggs usually laid in April.
Incubation, by the female alone, lasts for around 28 days, during which time the male brings food to his mate but doesn’t enter the cavity. After hatching, females continue to brood young without leaving the nest for around 9 days, after which they resume hunting for prey themselves and returning to feed nestlings in the cavity until they are ready to fledge at around 27 days old.
Northern pygmy-owls lay between two and seven white, glossy eggs. Their eggs, which have no patterning or marking on the shells, measure up to 3.2 cm by 2.5 cm (1.3 in by 1 in).
Pairs form at the beginning of the breeding season, raising one brood together and staying bonded until their young have gained independence. It’s unclear whether northern pygmy-owl pairs reunite in subsequent seasons or whether they find a new mate each year.
Northern Pygmy-Owl perched on the edge of a hollow tree trunk
Known for their fierce hunting tactics and lack of fear when tackling much larger prey, northern pygmy-owls have a well-deserved reputation as aggressive predators.
Physical interactions with other northern pygmy-owls have been observed, particularly where competition over food, with confrontational behavior including chasing, grappling, swiping, and locking feet together.
Northern pygmy-owls are active hunters during daylight hours, watching for potential prey from perches in trees, and roosting overnight in scrubland thickets or the lower vegetation in shady stands of alder, out of sight of potential predators.
Northern Pygmy-Owl resting on a broken branch
Northern pygmy-owls are a nonmigratory species and remain in the same range all year round. Some birds living at higher elevations may move to lower-lying land in the fall, but no large-scale or long-distance migration takes place.
Northern pygmy-owls are a native US species and are also resident in Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Northern Pygmy-Owl perched in the trees
Currently, research is ongoing to decide whether mountain owls and northern pygmy-owls should be classified as independent or separate species.
The two are very similar in coloring and size, so the best way to tell the two apart is by their habitat: northern pygmy-owls are widespread in forests and woodlands of western North America, while mountain pygmy-owls are concentrated in uplands, in particular the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada.
Vocalizations of the two species are also markedly different, with mountain pygmy-owls making a series of distinctive whistled hoots, while northern pygmy-owls can be heard making high-pitched one-note tooting calls.
Northern pygmy owls are mainly diurnal and are most active around sunrise and sunset.
16cm to 18cm
62g to 72g
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.
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.
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.
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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