Smallest of them all

Of the four categorized subspecies of elf owl, Micrathene whitneyi is currently the only one officially recognized.

M. w. whitneyi (1861) – southwest USA and northwest Mexico
M. w. idonea (1914) – south Texas to central Mexico
M. w. sanfordi (1914) – southern Baja California
M. w. graysoni (1886) – Socorro Island off western Mexico (extinct)

Approximately the size of a sparrow, elf owls are the smallest owl species. These birds measure a whopping 5-6 inches tall and weigh less than a golf ball. They migrate in large groups. Some broods migrate in the spring to breed in the Southwestern United States, and you might be lucky enough to spot them if you live in California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas. During the winter, they congregate in central and southern Mexico. Migrating elf owls return north from mid-April to early May. Permanent populations can be found in a few locations in the central part of southern Mexico and along the Baja coast.

elf owl native range map
(Cephas, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
human holding elf owl
(elf owls lack the typical ear tufts and look like they have white eyebrows; US Fish & Wildlife Service photo)

They're considered especially wise

A group of owls is called a parliament. That seems an appropriate term for a bird often used to symbolize wisdom. In folklore, the owl represented the goddess Athena. According to Greek mythology, an owl sat on Athena's blind side so she could see the whole truth and became a symbol of higher wisdom.

ancient Greek coin with owl symbol

(Greek coin; no machine-readable author provided. Matthias Kabel assumed based on copyright claims, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; enlarged)

Pellet packing and pooping

Owls swallow their food whole or in large pieces. Unlike other raptors, they have no crop for storing food. They also lack the digestive juices needed to break down fur, feathers, beaks, bones, teeth, insect shells, and other hard parts. Those pieces are packed into tight pellets in the bird's gizzard. Owls usually regurgitate the sausage-shaped pellets below their favorite roosting spot within ten to twenty hours after every meal. The owl is then ready to hunt again.

Like most bird poop, elf owl droppings consist of a whitish-brown liquid. The small amount of brown in the droppings is the owl's actual poop.

Owls do poop, and their scat is made up of whitewash, similar to many other birds. However, due to a unique digestive system make-up, this bird of prey remains with a significant amount of their prey’s components within their stomachs. What an owl cannot digest will be pelletized by the gizzard and regurgitated at least once or twice a day. Before this process, the owl, usually at rest when food is digesting, cannot eat again until pellets have been cast. This text is originally from HuntingHeart.com, you can read more here: https://huntingheart.com/do-owls-poop/

Owls do poop, and their scat is made up of whitewash, similar to many other birds. However, due to a unique digestive system make-up, this bird of prey remains with a significant amount of their prey’s components within their stomachs. What an owl cannot digest will be pelletized by the gizzard and regurgitated at least once or twice a day. Before this process, the owl, usually at rest when food is digesting, cannot eat again until pellets have been cast. This text is originally from HuntingHeart.com, you can read more here: https://huntingheart.com/do-owls-poop/

Owls do poop, and their scat is made up of whitewash, similar to many other birds. However, due to a unique digestive system make-up, this bird of prey remains with a significant amount of their prey’s components within their stomachs. What an owl cannot digest will be pelletized by the gizzard and regurgitated at least once or twice a day. Before this process, the owl, usually at rest when food is digesting, cannot eat again until pellets have been cast. This text is originally from HuntingHeart.com, you can read more here: https://huntingheart.com/do-owls-poop/

owl regurgitate

(photo courtesy of Alan Sieradzki, Senior Researcher, United Kingdom Global Owl Project)

They're territorial tricksters

When captured or handled, an elf owl pretends to be dead until danger has passed and it can safely fly away. This adaptation encourages a predator to relax its grip so the owl can escape.

These owls are not very aggressive, preferring flight to fight. They're also notoriously territorial. The male establishes a territory that's defended by both the male and the female. Males also view their mate as territory to be defended.

Because it can be too cold in the desert for many nocturnal insects, the elf owl migrates to Mexico for the winter. During the breeding season, elf owls are monogamous and remain in breeding pairs, but can be found in small groups during migration and when mobbing predators. Both adults and young are subject to predation by other birds, including jays, hawks, and larger owls.

Places they call home

elf owl in cactus hole

(nesting in a saguaro cactus)

saguaro cactus

(PlantFiles)

saguaro cactus

(saguro cacti (Carnegeia gigantea) by Matthew T Rader, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Elf owls nest in tree cavities and abandoned woodpecker holes. The female lays 2-4 white eggs in a nest 15-35 feet from the ground.

Like all owls, the elf owl has excellent night vision. It can't see in total darkness but sees quite well in low light, and its hearing is the most sensitive of any animal tested. They can catch prey in complete darkness by pinpointing the sound. Elf owl flight is silent, making no noise as it approaches prey. Even the wing beat is muffled by the soft feathers on the leading edge of its wings.

Want to learn more about owls? This book is all about North American owls.

elf owl on branch at night

Dining on venomous prey

Feeding primarily on invertebrates such as moths, crickets, beetles, and centipedes, they're not afraid to make a meal of a deadly scorpion. These owls know which parts of the scorpion's body are dangerous, and remove the stinger before taking it back to the nest.

scorpion

Threats and helpers

The major threat to the elf owl is habitat loss of both its riparian forest and desert scrub habitats. In Arizona, the elf owl is fairly common, but its numbers are decreasing in California and Texas.

Usually, owls kill prey before bringing it home. But if they’re able to capture the small, worm-like reptiles known as blind snakes, they feed these to the chicks alive. Some are devoured immediately, but others escape into the litter that lines the bottom of the nest and feed on the insect larvae that would otherwise parasitize the nestlings. A study conducted by Baylor University scientists found that chicks grew faster and healthier in nests tended by blind snakes.

Predators and lifespan

Elf owl predators can include other owls, snakes, ringtails, bobcats, and coyotes. Most predators find it too difficult to reach a nest high up in a saguaro. In the wild, elf owls live 3-6 years. In captivity, their lifespan is 6-10 years.

elf owl in juniper

(below: the comparative size of a barn owl)

barn owl

Talk about the stink eye ... I wouldn't mess with her, would you? Mama owls will defend their brood against all threats and have been known to snatch a baby bird from the mouth of a snake. Elf owls hunt venomous scorpions; larger owls hunt copperheads and rattlers, two of the most venomous snakes in North America.

elf owl with young

(thumbnail-Bettina Aragoni (cc by-sa 2.0)