Northern Pygmy-Owl, a ‘little owl’ of the west



This Northern Pygmy-Owl is one of the ‘little owl’ species found in the U.S. Only about 7 inches tall (not much larger than sparrows), these owls can be very difficult to spot not only because of their small size but because their plumage causes them to blend in to trees on which they perch. Unlike some species of owls, Northern Pygmy-Owls hunt during the daytime, though they this may extend into evening. These owls are found in forests in western parts of the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

These cute little  owls have pretty long tails with narrow white bars.   As seen in this photo their tails are often held a little off the side instead of straight below.  Their largish yellow eyes are accentuated by the white feathering around them.

I found the owl in these photos a few years ago only about 10 miles from where I live in Colorado. The photo on the right shows what it looked like when I spotted it with my bare eyes as I drove slowly on a gravel road looking for birds (I was totally not expecting to see an owl!).

The juniper tree in which it was perched was less than a hundred feet off the road. As I approached I found there were at least 2-3 Northern Pygmy-Owls in the junipers, all juveniles like this one. This was likely a family group of fledglings and a parent bird was probably in the area too.

Northern Pygmy-Owls have ‘false eye spots’ on the back of their heads that are thought to provide some protection from predators that think the owls can see them.

I was prompted to post about this species because I did some ‘owling’ last week-end and I found a Northern Pygmy-Owl higher in the mountains at around 9,000 feet in elevation.  I videotaped this owl as it called, though all  that can be seen is the 60-80 foot tall conifer in which this owl is perched at the top as it was not visible with the small amount of zoom in the point-and-shoot camera I used.  Snow is seen falling in the video.  In addition to the high pitched repetitive ‘toots’ given my this owl, you can hear a Mountain Chickadee that was agitated by the owl.

The photo on the right was the best I could get with my dslr camera and very long lens combo, and it shows it perched close to the top of the tree.

Some Audubon chapters sponsor ‘owling’ trips which are a great way to see an owl in the field.  Another good way to get to see a ‘little owl’–a Northern Pygmy-Owl, Northern Saw-whet or one of the species of screech-owl is at a local raptor center (google for your raptor center and your state) as these have non-releasable birds they use for education.

Do you know a raptor center in your area?

Have you visited it?


  1. says

    I have never seen or heard this little owl. What a cute little call. I am not sure I would have known this call was a bird If I had heard it in the woods alone. Thanks for educating me!

    • says

      Hi Kathie, I went to your website (just click on her name in her comments above)–wow, you lived (at least not too long ago) in Arizona’s famous Sycamore Canyon! That is awesome, some of the finest birding in US. According to the report submitted to National Audubon Society when Sycamore Canyon was nominated as an Important Birding Area (IBA), an achievement it was awarded, there are or at least have been Northern Pygmy-Owls breeding somewhere in that canyon but that could be high up away from human habitation.

      Just an fyi–Northern Saw-whet, another little owl, also makes a ‘tooting’ call and it can be difficult to separate the calls of these two species. Northern Saw-whet Owls, though found mostly in west states, are found in various other areas of US and Canada.

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