Pygmy - an adjective, used in names of animals and plants that are much smaller than more typical kinds. So, yes, the Northern Pygmy-Owl is much smaller than the typical owl. For comparison, it is a bit plumper than a mountain Bluebird. Their length is 6 to 7 inches, they weigh 2 to 2 1/2 ounces and have a 15 inch wingspan. A great horned owl they are not!
These owls are found in forests alongside streams and in higher elevations in fir, spruce and mixed conifer forests. They are found in Canada, the western United States and down into Mexico and Central America.
They have a large, circular head, a long tail and fairly short, rounded wings. Northern Pygmy-Owls have fine white speckles on a brown head and white spots on their back. Dark patches on the back of the neck look like eyes and are a distinctive feature. They have yellow eyes and a yellow bill.
Other than being unusually small, they also differ from other owls because they do not have asymmetrically placed ears or flattened facial discs. Both of these features help other owls hunt by sound. Pygmy-Owls are diurnal (active during the day) and rely more on vision than sound for hunting.
And what a fierce and bold hunter they are! They have a taste for songbirds such as hummingbirds, chickadees, warblers and sparrows. Sometimes, they attack prey that is larger than themselves such as California quail, Northern Flicker, squirrels, gophers or chickens! Their diet also includes rodents, insects such as beetles, butterflies, and crickets. Lizards and skinks are also on the menu. A Pygmy-Owl will sit quietly and surprise their prey. If they have more food than they need, they will cache it in tree cavities or hang it on tree thorns.
Northern Pygmy-Owls will not dig their own nest holes as they prefer to use a natural cavity or an old cavity excavated by a woodpecker. You cannot attract them with a nest box as you might with a barn owl. Two to seven eggs are laid at the bottom of the cavity which is lined with wood chips, decomposing leaves, feathers, and moss. The female incubates the eggs for 28 days and the male is the provider for her while she incubates. They both will hunt for the hatchlings.
Two ways to try to spot these tiny owls: listen for a series of evenly spaced and high-pitched toots. Or look for groups of mobbing songbirds. Though songbirds, such as hummingbirds, wrens, warblers, and blackbirds are prey for these diminutive owls, they will mob the owl trying to drive it away.
A Northern Pygmy-Owl found in Oregon during banding operations is the oldest known Pygmy-Owl at 3 years and eleven months old.
Tri County Wildlife Care, a local nonprofit started in 1994, is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of our native wildlife and helping our community live in balance with wildlife. They envision a world where wildlife and people thrive together. For more information call (209) 283-3245, or visit pawspartners.org.