Deep Dive - Elf Owls

by OBDK on December 27, 2021

Elf owls are the smallest owls in North America.1 They are grayish brown, with yellow eyes, and have white streaks over their eyes that look like eyebrows. They live in the southwestern region of the United States and in Central Mexico and Baja California. They are roughly equal in size to a sparrow.2


Within these regions, you’re most likely to find them in deserts that have saguaro cacti, but they can also be found in regions with water and wooded areas.2&3 They like to make their homes in cavities that are naturally formed or made by woodpeckers. Usually, they’ll settle in sycamores, oaks, and cacti.2 This actually gives them an advantage over possible predators, like snakes, coyotes, or bobcats, because they have a hard time getting up to them in a cactus.2&3 


Elf Owls have weak feet, so they tend to hunt easy prey like insects. They tend to capture them in flight. They do this by hovering over the insects, which causes them to take off and they’ll capture them in the air. However, another option is they’ll forage on the ground for their prey.3


Similar to Barn Owls, Elf Owls are able to fly silently. This allows them an advantage over their prey since they won’t hear them coming.2 Their flight pattern has been described as similar to bats, although less erratic. When given the choice to fight or fly away, Elf Owls will choose to fly away from a threat.3


These owls will lay their eggs in April or May. They’ll begin to incubate after laying their second egg and will lay up to five total, although it’s usually three. They’ll incubate their eggs for about two weeks. Unlike other bird species, where the female broods all by herself, female Elf Owls have been known to turn the incubation duty over to the male so she can go out and hunt.3 


Did you catch our deep dive on Great Horned Owls? Check it out here!  

  1. Sibley’s Owls of North America, by David Allen Sibley. Published by Earth Sky + Water, LLC. 2016.