At a Glance

Regions near the Mexican border are home to this gnome, the tiniest owl in the world, no bigger than a sparrow. On moonlit nights in late spring, its yapping and chuckling calls (surprisingly loud for the size of the bird) echo among the groves of giant cactus and through the lower canyons. The Elf Owl feeds almost entirely on insects and other invertebrates, which become harder to find in cold weather, so it migrates south into Mexico for the winter.
Low Concern
Arroyos and Canyons, Desert and Arid Habitats, Forests and Woodlands, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets
California, Southwest, Texas
Direct Flight, Rapid Wingbeats

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

North of the Mexican border, strictly a summer resident, arriving early in spring and departing fairly early in fall.


5 1/2" (14 cm). Our smallest owl. Tiny size, no "ear" tufts, short tail. Blurry streaks below, white eyebrows, white stripe above wing.
About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Brown, Gray, White, Yellow
Wing Shape
Tail Shape
Rounded, Short, Square-tipped

Songs and Calls

Rapid series of high-pitched notes, higher in the middle.
Call Pattern
Falling, Flat
Call Type
Chatter, Chirp/Chip, Whistle


Saguaro deserts, wooded canyons. Within its United States range, found in any lowland habitat providing cover and good nesting cavities. Most common in deserts with many tall saguaro cactus or large mesquites, and in canyons in the foothills, especially around sycamores or large oaks.



3, sometimes 2-4, rarely 1-5. White. Incubation is by female only, about 24 days, male brings food to female during incubation.


Female remains with young most of the time at first, while male brings food for female and young. After about 2 weeks, female hunts for food also. Young leave nest at about 27-28 days, are cared for by parents for at least several days thereafter.

Feeding Behavior

Hunts only at dusk and at night. Watches from a perch and then swoops down to take prey off the ground, or flies low, pausing to hover before pouncing. Also flies out from a perch to catch flying insects. May hover among foliage and then catch insects that are flushed from the leaves. Apparently catches all prey with its feet. May remove the stinger before eating scorpions.


Insects and other arthropods. In summer, feeds heavily on moths, beetles, and crickets, as well as katydids and other insects active at night. Also feeds on scorpions and spiders. Rarely eats lizards and other small vertebrates.


Early in breeding season, male sings loudly and persistently at night to defend territory and attract female. In courtship, male feeds female. Male sings from inside potential nest hole to lure female to it. Nest site is almost always in old woodpecker hole in tree or giant cactus (or in utility pole). Height varies: usually 15-50' above ground in streamside sycamores, 10-30' up in saguaros.

Climate Vulnerability

Conservation Status

Has become scarce along the lower Colorado River and in southern Texas, probably owing to loss of habitat. Still common in many parts of southern Arizona.