TOP 5 ID TIPS: FLAMMULATED OWLS
Very dark eyes
Plumage looks very similar to reddish-brown tree bark
Highly nocturnal; usually not seen in the daylight
The Flammulated Owl is a small bird residing mostly in the montane pine forests of the Western United States and Mexico. In fact, these owls might be the most common raptor of these areas. There is very little geographic variation throughout this species because of its large gene pool, or large population. Flammulated Owls are highly nocturnal, and extremely well camouflaged, making them difficult to find and even more difficult to study.
Denver Holt recording for the Owl Research Institute CD Hoots, Toots, Calls, Clacks, and Hisses
FLAMMULATED OWL ANATOMY & ADAPTATIONS
Flammulated Owls are unique in many ways. They have many different or varied characteristics that do not fit the typical owl description.
For one, these owls rely more on their ability to see than their ability to hear while hunting. Since they eat mostly insects, these birds have less need to hear their prey in the dark.
Their foremost flight feathers are less adapted than in other species, as well. Flammulated Owls lack the specialized comb-like protrusions on these feathers that silence flight motions. This makes their flight much noisier than other owls.
For such a small body, the wings of a Flammulated Owl are quite long, especially compared to other species of owl. With these long wings, these birds can achieve high speeds. However, their maneuverability during flight is significantly reduced by their wing length.
Unique vocal anatomy of the Flammulated Owl produces a call unlike that of other small owls. The call of this species is hoarse, with low-frequency notes that produce sounds similar to the calls of large owls.
Flammulated Owls actually have tiny ear tufts These tufts usually remain flattened against the sides of the head, giving the owl’s head a more rectangular shape. This, as well as the species’ dark eyes, can be used in differentiating a Flammulated Owl from other species.
FLAMMULATED OWL HABITAT
Wooded pine forests are the preferred habitat for the Flammulated Owl. Because pine is a commercially valuable wood, however, these areas are often logged and can reduce available habitat. Flammulated Owls have also been known to reside in aspen and Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) forests as well.
Forests suitable to Flammulated Owls seem to be less dense than others, but with thick pockets that make safe roost sites. Ridge tops and hillsides are also favorites of the Flammulated Owl; the openness of these habitats allows their calls to be heard all around.
FLAMMULATED OWL DIET AND HUNTING
Flammulated Owls have to be picky with their habitat due to their specialized diet. This small owl possesses weak feet, less-keen hearing than other owls, and relatively long wings, all of which change the owl’s ability to hunt. Instead of feasting on small mammals like many other owls, the Flammulated Owl eats primarily nocturnal arthropods, specifically insects.
Flammulated Owls eat beetles, moths, grasshoppers, and crickets. Since they have adapted to eat a diet of creepy-crawlies, Flammulated Owls actually cannot process bones the same way other owls can: coughing up pellets containing the bones. Instead, these owls easily cough up pellets consisting mostly of chitin, which is a major component of arthropod exoskeletons.
FLAMMULATED OWL NESTING
These birds are cavity nesters and will take up living in natural tree cavities or old woodpecker holes. They are so dependant on woodpeckers for nests that in areas where woodpecker populations decline Flammulated Owls have been known to suffer, too.
Flammulated Owls have reportedly taken nests from other birds, as well. In New Mexico, a female Flammulated Owl was found incubating two of her own eggs alongside five bluebird (Sialia spp.) eggs. Researchers concluded that the owl had fought the bluebird out of its nest, even after the bluebird had already laid its eggs. Another account of this occurred in Colorado; a female Flammulated Owl incubated two of her own eggs and one Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) egg. Female Flammulated Owls are also different from other owls in that they sleep while incubating eggs.
A natural risk to the Flammulated Owl is the species’ very small clutch size. Usually only laying 2-3 eggs per brood, these owls reproduce at an abnormally slow rate. To make up for this, Flammulated Owls have a relatively long lifespan.
Most Flammulated Owls are usually monogamous, meaning they only have one mate each year. Pairs may breed together in a specific area for many years. In one study, 74% of pairs kept the same mate for consecutive nesting seasons and used the same nest territory as previous seasons.
FLAMMULATED OWL MIGRATION
Flammulated Owl migration has been debated and studied for dozens of years now, but many questions remain unanswered. These owls only migrate at night, making them very difficult to study, detect, or track.
It is now known that northern populations of the species are migratory, probably descending to more southern latitudes for the winter. This north-south migration pattern is known as “transladitudinal migration”. Another theory is that these northern birds go into torpor, a lethargic state similar to hibernation, during the winter. The latter theory has not been entirely proven.
Those Flammulated Owls that do migrate probably do so in October, with juveniles leaving earlier than adults. The spring migration probably takes place in late April through early May. Some researchers think Flammulated Owl migration is timed to match the species’ insectivorous diet. As arthropods become harder to find in the chilly fall months of the North, the Flammulated Owls head south to find new insects to feed on.
FLAMMULATED OWL FOSSILS
Flammulated Owl fossils have been found in several areas of North America. Some are an estimated 600,000 years old! Many fossils have been found in caves: the San Josecito Cave of Nuevo Leon, Mexico; Samwel Cave of Shasta County, California; and possibly the Deadman Cave of Pima County, Arizona. Some Flammulated Owl fossils have actually been found with Whiskered Screech Owl (Megascops trichopsis) and Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) fossils.
FLAMMULATED OWL THREATS
Flammulated Owls are very particular when it comes to picking a nest site and habitat. This makes the species extremely vulnerable to small habitat and ecosystem changes. Pesticide and insecticide use, pollution, wildfires, and climate change all pose threats to the Flammulated Owl.
One specific disturbance for the Flammulated Owl is the unauthorized removal of dead trees for firewood. This activity leaves fewer nest and roost sites for the Flammulated Owl. While the feisty Flammulated Owl will kick other birds out of their nests and fight off other small owls in its territory, this can leave other birds at a disadvantage when sharing habitat with Flammulated Owls.
FLAMMULATED OWL QUICK FACTS:
A small owl with large dark eyes, grayish-brown beak, and short ear tufts
Males: grayish-brown (northern) or reddish-brown (southern) with much streaking, dotting, and barring; much variation between individuals
Females: same as males
Young: similar to adults by second week
Flammulated Screech-Owl, Flammulated Scops Owl
FLAMMULATED OWL SIZE:
Height: Males 15-17 cm (5.9-6.7 in), Females 15-17 cm (5.9-6.7 in)
Weight: Males 45-63g (1.58-2.22 oz), Females 45-63g (1.58-2.22 oz)
Wingspan Both: 36-42 cm (14.2-16.5 in)
FLAMMULATED OWL RANGE:
Western North America, from the mountains of southern B.C. through parts of most western U.S. states, south to mountainous Mexico; winters in southern and central Mexico and Guatemala
FLAMMULATED OWL HABITAT:
Mainly associated with mid-elevation mountainous regions with open coniferous forests; also high elevation aspen or oak forests; forests with brushy undergrowth
FLAMMULATED OWL DIET:
Almost exclusively insects, especially nocturnal insects like moths, beetles, and crickets; rarely rodents such as shrews
FLAMMULATED OWL VOICE:
Heard at night; sounds like a larger owl, calling in the distance
Males: a series of single deep, short “whoop” or “hoot” notes; sometimes double “hoo-hoop”
Females: higher pitched than males; also give a soft “mewing” call
FLAMMULATED OWL NESTING:
Nest Site: cavity nester; usually nests in old woodpecker holes, but will occasionally use nest boxes; individuals often return to same area year after year
Eggs: 2-4 creamy white eggs
Incubation: 21-24 days
FLAMMULATED OWL HUNTING HABITS:
Almost strictly nocturnal; also crepuscular during breeding and incubation
FLAMMULATED OWL CONSERVATION STATUS:
Not globally threatened, but sensitive in U.S. and vulnerable in Canada.
FLAMMULATED OWL RESEARCH:
Read about the Owl Research Institute's Flammulated Owl study HERE >>
FLAMMULATED OWL DISTRIBUTION IN NORTH AMERICA
Maps provided by The Birds of North America Online and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Have you studied another language in school? There are thousands of different languages in the world, but the common language of all scientists is Latin. That’s because plants and animals have so many different names in so many different languages that it can get very confusing! So, all plants and animals also have a scientific name, which is in Latin. These names may sound funny (like Bubo or horribilus), but once you understand them, they actually make a lot of sense and can teach you something about the species.
Take the Flammulated Owl, for instance. Its Latin name is Psiloscops flammeolus. Psilo means single and scops is the Latin name for the genus, or group, called Scops. The Flammulated Owl is the only owl in North America that belongs to this genus, which tells you that it is very unique! The word flammeolus is the species name, and comes from the Latin word flammeus, which means “flame-shaped” or “flame-colored”.
So what can you infer about the Flammulated Owl? Did you guess that the Flammulated Owl has a reddish “flame” shape on its wing? Well, that’s right! Actually, Flammulated Owls can either be flame-colored (reddish) or ash colored (grayish), depending on where in North America they live. Generally they are grayer in the North and redder in the South. Perhaps these color variations help the owls to better camouflage themselves in their surroundings.
No matter where they live Flammulated Owls choose habitats that are arid and cool- usually forested areas up in the mountains. Maybe it makes sense for the “flaming owl” to live in a place that feels cool!
Owl Research Institute © All Rights Reserved
Written and arranged by Brooklin Hunt, VA, ORI Intern 2017-18
Linkhart, Brian D., et al. “Flammulated Owl, Psiloscops flammeolus”. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America. 04 June 2013. Birdsna.org.