Find out more about our Species at Risk

Northern Pygmy Owl

Northern Pygmy Owl – Glaucudium gnoma swarthi – Nick Saunders, 2017

Species: Northern Pygmy Owl – Glaucudium gnoma swarthi

B.C. Status: Blue

Key Information:

This fearless little hunter is certainly unique to the owl family. About the size of a fist, the pygmy pwl is a tiny predator that is also prey to larger predators. The northern pygmy pwl’s preferred food source consists of small rodents and small birds. They are opportunists so the occasional meals of: amphibians, reptiles, and insects will satisfy them as well. They are often spotted perched at the top of a tree, or in the middle of a bird “mobbing” trying to get a meal.

The northern pygmy owl differentiates from other owls in its eating patterns. They are diurnal, meaning they hunt between dawn and dusk. This is a natural defense against larger predators such as, other owls, raccoons, and weasels whom are typically active at night.

Northern pygmy owls have a wide-ranging forest habitat, although they do have specific needs to thrive. Undisturbed, open, coniferous forests – where old snag trees are left standing – are crucial for their habitat. Open, old-growth forests are most supportive to a thriving, healthy owl population. In Canada, there are around 14, 500 breeding individuals.

These little birds fly low, land on lower branches and climb up to the tops of the trees to “perch and pounce: on their prey. Having lower branches is essential for them to land and then climb up to get the bird’s eye view of the forest and their food. Low, old branches are also very important so they can access their nests. They nest in abandoned cavities made by woodpeckers, usually in standing dead trees. This of course makes them dependent on stable Woodpecker populations.

Instinctually living on the forests’ edge offers them access to more diverse foraging. They love to nest on steep hillsides, where they have an expansive view, and access to water and meadows nearby. This is home to the pygmy owl. The average range per breeding pair is 75 ha, with 1.6 km distance from other breeding pairs. The northern pygmy owl is seasonally monogamous and can lay 2–7 eggs per season upon maturity.

Some Northern Pygmy Owls will defend their territory all year-long, while others will during mating season only (March–June). Males and females work together as parents to take care of each other and their young from initial courtship up to a few weeks after the owlets first fledge.

These little owls are year-round residents to western North America, ranging from Alaska down through western Canada and United States into Mexico. The world-wide population is approximated around 80,000 breeding individuals and within Canada there are about 14,500 individuals.

Population numbers are said to be stable in Canada but have declined since 1973. There are some key environmental factors that could cause instability in northern pygmy owl populations. On-going deforestation/logging practices (removing snag trees), and a change in climate are a serious threat to their habitat. Predation from barred owls, and egg-predation from raccoons and squirrels are also a threat to the northern pygmy owl population. The northern pygmy owl population is under threat and is noted as a species of special concern.

Identification – what to look for:

  • Brown with white speckles on head and back
  • Long tail and short wings
  • Dark brown tail with white bars
  • Lacks ear tuffs
  • Round head
  • Yellow eyes and bill
  • Dark spots on back of neck that resemble eyes
  • Light chest
  • Size of a fist
  • Female and male plumage is indistinguishable from one sex to the other
  • Juveniles are similar but they do not develop the white spots until maturity.

Where are they found?

  • Native to the forests of western North America: ranging from Alaska, down through western Canada and the US, into Mexico.
  • Northern pygmy owls are year-round residents to open, coniferous forests.

Those that live up at higher elevations will migrate lower into the valleys in the cold of winter.

Cool Facts!

  • Keeping in mind their tiny stature, they will hunt for animals twice their size! Once they are full up from their meal, they will cache the rest to eat later.
  • One of two of the only diurnal owls.
  • If you mimic the call of the northern pygmy owl in the forests and the other songbirds respond, you know you are in pygmy owl territory.
  • Average life span is estimated to be 7 years. The oldest pygmy owl found and rereleased was 3 years & 11 months.

Useful links:

“Perch before the pounce” YouTube Video
Video of Pygmy Release VIMEO Video
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Northern Pygmy Owl Overview
Audubon: Northern Pygmy Owl Overview

Northern Pygmy Owl – Eric Heisey, 2017

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