Easily mistaken for the young of other owl species at first glance, the Northern Pygmy Owl is one of the smallest owl species, measuring a mere 7 inches in length with a 15 inch wingspan when it is fully grown. Its large, rounded head, compact body, curved wings, and long tail are all dark-brown and white in color. Its brown head is adorned with white speckles and its white front with brown streaks. It can also be identified by its piercing yellow eyes.
The Northern Pygmy Owl has a geographically extensive habitat, spanning throughout the mountain ranges of Western North America. The owl resides near forest openings, such as meadows and lakes, in a variety of forest types. Although its size might be small, this owl cannot be underestimated. The Northern Pygmy Owl is a fierce hunter, whose prey consists primarily of small birds, such as chickadees, warblers, and sparrows. They will also prey on small mammals, including shrews, moles, and chipmunks. Surprisingly, the Northern Pygmy Owl has the ability to catch prey up to three times their own size, including the Northern Bobwhite, the California Quail, and sometimes even chickens!
The Northern Pygmy Owl is also unique in that it is one of the few owl species that is active during the day, or, in other words, diurnal. This characteristic is underlined by the owl’s lack of features possessed by most other owls which increase hearing abilities, including asymmetrically placed ears and flattened facial discs around the eyes. The absence of these features is likely a result of the owl’s greater dependence on vision during its daylight activity rather than hearing.
The Northern Pygmy’s diurnal habits make them easier to spot than most other nocturnal owls. However, the owl’s small size and its unassuming hunting tactics make it hard to spot using just one’s eyes and a pair of binoculars. If you would like to succeed in spotting a Northern Pygmy Owl it is best to use your ears. The owl has a distinct call of high, evenly spaced toots. You can also listen out for a loud commotion of bird calls, called a mobbing. As a defensive measure, small birds, including wrens, robins, warblers, and jays will often mob a Northern Pygmy Owl until it flies away. The owl also has two black patches outlined in white on its nape, which resemble an extra set of eyes. These have been interpreted as a mechanism to fool mobbing birds into thinking they are being watched. Therefore, following the noise made by agitated birds will often betray the location of the owl they are attempting to chase off.
So, if you would like to see an owl in the wild without having to walk around in the woods at night– getting scratched by twigs and tripping over roots with your night vision goggles glued to your face– then the Northern Pygmy Owl is the one for you.
Photo 1: Juliette Bobrow, Photo 2: Michael Ashbee, Photo 3: John Gordon Photography, Photo 4: Anne Elliott