California Raptor Center

Elf Owl

Scientific Name: Micrathene whitneyi
(Micrathene is ‘small Athene’ a reference to the Greek goddess of wisdom and whitneyi is for Josiah Dwight Whitney a mining geologist in the nineteeth century).

Size: Length: 5-6in Wingspan: 14-15in

Weight: 35-55g (range) (~0.08-0.12lb)

Lifespan: The age in the wild is about five years, although they can reach 14 years in captivity.

ID: Elf owls have short tails, yellow irises, conspicuous white eyebrow marks and two rows of white spots on the wings. Their backs are grayish-brown with buff mottling; cinnamon-brown blurry vertical streaks occur on the breast. Their bills are greenish yellow and their legs and feet are tan to dull yellow.

Hunting: Employ a sit-and-wait strategy when foraging. They search for food on the ground, in the air, and in lower to mid-level vegetation. In urbanized areas, they forage by outdoor lights, lighted windows and at hummingbird feeders. They can catch insects in flight, capturing them with their feet or beak. Sometimes owls chase insects on the ground and beat them from plants. Elf owls move their food back and forth between their feet and beak in order to kill, pluck, and/or eat it. They avoid consuming dangerous body parts of prey; they remove the stingers of scorpions before eating them. Elf owls cache large prey in cavities in order to eat them at a later time.

Prey: Primarily eat insects — especially moths, beetles, and crickets — but occasionally they eat small mammals and reptiles, like spiny lizards, earless lizards, blind snakes and kangaroo rats.

Breeding: Elf owls breed annually from April to July. Females begin breeding their first year following hatching. Raise only a single brood per year, but they do replace lost clutches and may replace lost broods. Clutches usually contain 3 eggs, but clutch size ranges from 1 to 5 eggs. Clutches in deserts are larger than in other habitats, probably because nesting begins earlier in deserts since food is more abundant early in the season in warmer, lower-elevation areas. Young fledge 28 to 33 days after hatching.

Range: Elf owls are often found in the upland deserts of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, their range also spreads into parts of California, New Mexico and Texas. Most are members of three populations that breed in the area of the United States-Mexico border and spend the winter in southern Mexico. Three other distinct populations exist in southern Baja California and Puebla, Mexico; these populations are nonmigratory.

Status: Protected under CITES Appendix II and the US Migratory Bird Act.