Grays Harbor Birds — Northern Pygmy Owl

Size: 6 3/4 inches high, with the female a bit larger, a wingspan of 12 inches, and weighs about 2.5 ounces.

General Description: Not much bigger than a House Sparrow, the Northern Pygmy Owl has a rounded head and small ear-tufts that are rarely seen in the field. They are an overall reddish-brown color with small white dots on the head, a light belly with thick brown streaks running vertically down the front, yellow eyes and bill, grayish-yellow feathered legs and feet, and a long narrow tail with six or seven light-colored stripes running across the width. There are two teardrop-shaped markings outlined in white on the back of the adult bird’s head that resemble eyes. The males and females are similar in plumage, and the juveniles are pretty much the same but with fluffier, unspotted plumage and grayer heads.

Habitat: The Northern Pygmy Owl inhabits open coniferous and mixed forest where they are able to dive down on their prey. They also hunt in open fields, wetlands, logged areas, and the edges of meadows. Because they use old woodpecker cavities for nesting, they may use these same areas for their hunting. They also use quiet, shady alder thickets, of which we have plenty.

Behavior: These are solitary, highly territorial birds; the males use calls to defend their territory, while the females actively pursue and will lock feet with an intruder and fall to the ground still joined. They are most often found from dawn to dusk but prefer to perch in thickets out of sight where they can watch but not be harassed by jays or crows. They can sometimes be found perched on the very top leader of a tree, and can be seen to bob their head and flick their tail up and down when excited. Their flight between perches is short and rapid, and if landing in another tree they often land low then work their way back up higher in the branches. Their courtship behavior is very tender, and they often bring food to one another and even snuggle together. They also toot and trill in response to each other.

Diet: Small birds make up a large part of their diet, but they also eat rodents, large insects, and reptiles. Because they hunt by day, they rely on their sight rather than hearing. Their wings are not only NOT silent like most owls, they actually make a whistling sound as they soar. They are a “sit and wait” predator, and often zig-zag from branch to branch until reaching a spot where they can drop down on their prey. They will often attack larger prey or drive off a much larger predator. They pluck the feathers of the birds they eat, and eat the choicest parts, often caching the rest for later. Pellets are small if at all as they don’t consume large amounts of fur, feathers or bones, and fall apart soon after being ejected.

Nesting: Monogamous pairs form in the spring, but it is not known which of the pair chooses the nest site; it is in a natural tree cavity or old woodpecker hole. The female lays 3 to 4 eggs between April and June but doesn’t begin incubation until all are laid, a behavior unique among North American owls. She incubates the eggs for 28 or 29 days while the male brings food and defends the nest from predators. She remains on the nest while the young rapidly reach adult size, in about 2 weeks, and the male continues to bring food. They fledge at about 30 days but are defended and cared for another 20 to 30 days.

Migration Status: Northern Pygmy Owls do not migrate seasonally but may move from a higher elevation to a lower elevation following their prey to river valleys, hay fields, pastures, the shrub-steppe regions, and the lower edges of forests.

Conservation Status: There is little information on the abundance of these owls in Washington. As long as they have snags or large trees left standing for nesting, they probably benefit from logged areas, as they adapt well to the combination of young forests and open areas.

Where and When to Find in Grays Harbor: Northern Pygmy Owls are fairly common year-round on the edges of our logged or forested areas. It takes patience and staying quietly still, but sooner or later one can be seen in almost any area around the harbor. I just have to go out there and look! Wish me luck.


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