NORTHERN PYGMY OWL
© KURT LINDSAY
Northern Pygmy Owls are hardly taller than a pencil and look like adorable fluff balls, but they are masterful predators with a taste for songbirds. In fact, they willingly take prey up to three-times their size! One report states a Northern Pygmy-Owl even killed a grown chicken. When hunting, this owl usually pins the animal to the ground and rips it apart with its sharp beak and talons. Biologists have noted instances of Northern Pygmy-Owls carrying animals that weigh more than 70% of their own body weight during flight.
With their fierce ambition, these birds sometimes get themselves in trouble while hunting. For example, two Northern Pygmy-Owls were found dead in Yellowstone National Park’s thermal hot springs, having attempted to take already-deceased passerines (songbirds) in the boiling water. In other cases, Northern Pygmy-Owls have been killed by prey animals that bite back, like weasels.
© Kurt Lindsay
Although Northern Pygmy-Owls are powerful hunters, they are vulnerable to many threats. Larger raptors are known to kill and eat these tiny birds. Since they are cavity nesters, this species may also be vulnerable to forest management practices that remove large, dead trees, or snags, from their habitat. Snags are often filled with natural holes, or those excavated by woodpeckers and other birds, so they are ideal for Northern Pygmy-Owl nesting. These owls have been known to visit bird feeders in search of a songbird snack, thus bringing them closer to the risks of hitting windows and human interference. Also, songbirds often “mob”, or swarm around, Northern Pygmy-Owls. Mobbing is a defense strategy; if all of the songbirds join forces, they won’t be singled out and attacked. These mobs occasionally turn violent, and Northern Pygmy-Owls deaths caused by mobbing have been reported.
To defend from predators and mobs of songbirds, Northern Pygmy-Owls have eyes in the back of their heads! Well, not literally. Oval-shaped black patches on the owl’s nape appear to be eyes at first glance. This deters the predator or songbirds from coming after the owl, as they think they are being watched.
This small owl is actually quite unlike most owls. It lacks the asymmetrical ear openings that aid other owls in nighttime hunting. Additionally, they lack a facial disk, which, in other species, acts like a TV dish, directing sounds towards the owl’s ears. Why doesn’t the Northern Pygmy-Owl exhibit these helpful adaptations? Because they don’t need them! While most owls are nocturnal, this species is primarily diurnal, meaning it is typically most active during daytime. These owls probably don’t need special hearing features, as daylight hunting requires more vision capabilities than auditory ones.
Male and female Northern Pygmy-Owls show less sexual dimorphism (physical differences based on gender) than many other species of owl. However, studies have revealed a pattern between humidity and color morphs of the Northern Pygmy-Owl. It seems that higher humidities produce owls with more brown plumage, while lower humidities produce owls with more grey plumage.
© Daniel J Cox/NaturalExposures.com
NORTHERN PYGMY OWL FACTS:
A plump little owl with short wings and long tail; yellow eyes, yellowish- white beak, dark, white-ringed “false eyes” on back of head
Males: grayish-brown with fine white spotting
Females: tend to be slightly darker than males
Young: spotting on head, dark beak
California Pygmy Owl, Mountain Pygmy Owl
CLOSEST RELATIVE: Cape Pygmy Owl
NORTHERN PYGMY OWL SIZE:
Females tend to be slightly larger than males
Height: Males 16-18 cm (6.3-7.1 in), Females 16-18 cm (6.3-7.1 in)
Weight: Males 62g (2.2 oz), Females 72g (2.5 oz)
Wingspan Both: 38cm (15.0 in)
NORTHERN PYGMY OWL RANGE:
Western North America, from southeastern Alaska and British Columbia south to California, Arizona, and northern Mexico
NORTHERN PYGMY OWL HABITAT:
Mostly coniferous and deciduous forest edges
NORTHERN PYGMY OWL DIET:
Main foods taken include small to medium sized birds, such as waxwings and chickadees; small mammals, such as mice and voles; shrews; sometimes insects, such as beetles and moths; occasionally small reptiles and amphibians
NORTHERN PYGMY OWL VOICE:
Primary song is a series of evenly spaced high pitched “toots”, but a variety of trills, twitters, and chirps can be heard, especially near nest.
NORTHERN PYGMY OWL NESTING:
Nest Site: cavity nester; nests in holes made by woodpeckers; will also use nest boxes
Eggs: 5-7 eggs
Incubation: 27-29 days
NORTHERN PYGMY OWL HUNTING HABITS:
Hunts during day but also during crepuscular period. Primarily a perch and pounce hunter but known to raid nests of passerines and woodpeckers.
NORTHERN PYGMY OWL CONSERVATION STATUS:
Not globally threatened, though apparently declining in many places in western North America.
NORTHERN PYGMY OWL RESEARCH:
Read about the Owl Research Institute's Northern Pygmy Owl study in RESEARCH.
ALSO OF INTEREST:
• One of the least studied owls in North America
• May cache prey in tree cavities or hang prey items on
thorns, like a Northern Shrike
• Pairs occasionally “sing” to each other or sing duets
• Unlike other owls, females & males have the same pitch
• Have hidden tufts that are raised when threatened
• Safer in nest cavities than some other owls because the
small diameter of entrances keep predators out
• Known to line nest with feathers or tree bark
• Rarely use man-made nest boxes
• Often seen in suburban areas during non-breeding season
• Have needle-like talons
• May bathe and drink, unlike most owls
NORTHERN PYGMY OWL DISTRIBUTION IN NORTH AMERICA
Maps provided by The Birds of North America Online and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The word “pygmy” means small, and that certainly describes the Northern Pygmy-Owl! Standing just 16-18 centimeters tall, this tiny owl is one of the smallest in North America. But the Pygmy-Owl doesn’t let size stand in its way; this fierce little owl frequently preys on birds and mammals larger than itself. You might see a Pygmy-Owl being harassed by a mob of angry songbirds.
Pygmy-owls are also well known for their feather markings. These owls literally have “eyes on the back of their heads”, or so it seems. Though Northern Pygmy-Owls actually have bright yellow eyes in front, the backs of their heads are feathered with a pair of quite convincing “eye spots”. Though these markings are really just variations in feather coloring, researchers believe that they confuse both predators and songbirds that might mob them. What do you think?
You may just get to see for yourself, for this is one owl that can be seen hunting most anytime of day or night, but especially near dawn and dusk. These tiny owls usually make their homes near forest edges and will often venture into a neighborhood looking for a songbird snack. Northern Pygmy-Owls aren’t particularly shy of humans, so keep your eyes peeled and you just might see one in your own neighborhood!
© Kurt Lindsay