Meet the Tiniest Owl in the World - The Elf Owl

american southwest, Audubon Field Guide, biology, birds, ecology, elf owls, kidwings, migration, obdk, owl brand discovery kits, owls, raptor biology -

Meet the Tiniest Owl in the World - The Elf Owl

Though small, an Elf Owl has no problem taking on a scorpion when it's dinner time. Photo: Bettina Arrigoni/Flickr CC (BY 2.0)

Standing less than six inches tall, feathered in gray with big yellow eyes, the Elf Owl weighs less than an ounce and a half — a bit less than a golf ball. 

And it’s a determined predator. Flying out from its tree cavity at dusk, the Elf Owl hunts beetles, crickets, and spiders, plus the odd lizard or mouse. Larger prey such as scorpions — with the stingers carefully removed — may end up cached in the nest for later dining.

Elf Owls live in woodlands and desert cactus habitats in southwest Texas and southern Arizona and New Mexico. In desert habitats, they often nest in woodpecker holes in tall saguaro cactus. They depart the US by October for warmer latitudes of Mexico, where insects are more available in winter. But spring comes early to the American Southwest, and the minuscule owls return by late February or March, ready to begin their breeding season. 

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.

Eggs

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

Young

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.

Nesting

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.

Migration

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