At a Glance
In western forests, this little owl is often active by day. It may fly fast and low from one tree to the next and then swoop up to take a high perch, rather like a shrike. An aggressive hunter despite its small size, it catches more birds than most small owls. Little gangs of chickadees and other songbirds often gather to 'mob' a pygmy-owl discovered in daylight, and they will react the same way to a birder who imitates the owl's whistled call.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Arroyos and Canyons, Forests and Woodlands, High Mountains
Alaska and The North, California, Northwest, Rocky Mountains, Southwest, Western Canada
Flap/Glide, Rapid Wingbeats, Undulating
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
No regular migration, but may wander away from breeding areas in fall and winter, including some downslope movement by mountain birds.
7-7 1/2" (18-19 cm). Small, with pale bars on long tail. Sharp streaks on white belly. Two bold spots (like false eyes) on back of head. Overall color varies from grayish to warm brown.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Brown, Gray, Red, White, Yellow
Long, Notched, Rounded, Square-tipped
Songs and Calls
A series of mellow whistles on 1 pitch. Also a thin rattle around the nest.
Chirp/Chip, Hoot, Whistle
Open coniferous or mixed woods, wooded canyons. Found in a wide variety of forest types, including open oak groves, sycamores in canyons, pine-oak woodland, coniferous forest of far north and high mountains. Generally in partly open habitats rather than solid unbroken forest.
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3-4, sometimes 2-7. White. Incubation apparently is by female only, about 28 days.
Both parents take part in providing food for young, with male bringing much of prey, female feeding it to young. Female may roost in nest hole with young at first. Age of young at first flight about 27-28 days.
Hunts most actively near dawn and dusk, but also at other times. Watches for prey from a perch, then makes very rapid pursuit flight.
Includes rodents, birds, insects, lizards. Diet varies with location and season. Rodents such as voles and mice are often major prey, also catches mammals as large as gophers and squirrels. During warm weather, eats many large insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, beetles. Small songbirds are sometimes up to one-third of diet. In southern parts of range, may catch many lizards.
Some birds defend territories all year; in breeding season, pairs defend very large nesting territories. Courtship displays at dusk may involve rapid aerial chases through the trees near potential nest sites. In courtship on perch, male feeds female. Nest site is in cavity in tree, either in natural hollow or (perhaps more often) in abandoned woodpecker hole, and usually 8-25' above ground.
Generally uncommon, but widespread; no evidence of general declines.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Northern Pygmy-Owl. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Northern Pygmy-Owl
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.