California Raptor Center

Northern Pygmy Owl

Scientific Name: Glaucidium gnoma
(Glaucidium is believed to come from the Greek gaukos meaning ‘gleaming’ or ‘glaring’ and gnoma is Greek for ‘reason’ or ‘opinion’ from gignoskein, ‘to know’). Because of recent DNA evidence, Northern Pygmy-Owl, which may have been formerly considered a race of Glaucidium gnoma, is considered in this text as its own separate nominant species; Glaucidium californicum.

Size: Length: 7-8 in Wingspan: 14-16in        

Weight: Female: 64-87g (~0.14-0.19lb) Male: 54-74g (~0.12-0.16lb)

Lifespan: No data found

ID: The Northern Pygmy Owl's most distinguishing feature is its "extra pair of eyes" found on the back of its head. These two black teardrop-shape markings, bordered by white, resemble eyes. The rest of this owl's head is, depending on its habitation, gray, red, or brown in color - covered on the surface by small white dots. Light belly is accented by thick brown stripes running vertically down its chest.

Hunting: Unlike most owls that are active at night and rely mainly on sound or black-and-white vision, Northern Pygmy Owl hunts mainly by day. Is a predominantly "sit and wait" type of predator. It sits and watches predominantly from the highest branches on trees. When attacking its prey, it either dives down toward prey on the ground, or jump in a zigzag fashion from branch to branch before dropping onto its prey with its sharp talons. These small owls, however, are much more vicious than they appear. They attack prey or run off predators that are up to several times their own size.

Prey: Mainly hunt for other birds, such as swallows, jays and chickadees, or sometimes mammals, such as shrews, moles and chipmunks.

Breeding: Breed from April to early June. Though it is not known which sex is responsible for picking and building the nest, the actual sites are almost always old woodpecker cavities. The trees in which these birds nest are usually coniferous, and are found within boreal and deciduous forests. Have clutch sizes that range from 3 to 7, which the female incubates for about 29 days while the male is responsible for bringing back food to the nest. He also defends it from any predators. After the fledglings hatch, they grow quickly and reach almost adult size after 2 weeks. They fledge at approximately 30 days, but are defended and cared for by their parents for an extra 20 to 30 days.

Range: Inhabits a more compact region on the west coast, through the Rocky Mountains from southern Alaska to southern California.

Status: Listed under CITES Appendix II.

Point of Interest: Another notable difference between this owl compared to other owls is its noisy flight. Many owls have specially adapted feathers and wings for quiet flight. The owl's wings not only make noise, but also whistle as it soars through the air. It appears as if these owls sleeps with its eyes open. Actually, after settling onto a branch, these birds' clear-white eyelid (nictitating membrane) covers the eyes. This gives the appearance that it's still alert and watching, possibly to ward off potential predators or threats.