Elf owl

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Elf owl
Micrathene whitneyi 29APR12 Madera Canyon AZ.jpg
Elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi) 29APR12 Madera Canyon AZ
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Strigiformes
Family: Strigidae
Genus: Micrathene
Coues, 1866
Species: M. whitneyi
Binomial name
Micrathene whitneyi
(J. G. Cooper, 1861)

The elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi) is a member of the owl family Strigidae, that breeds in the southwestern United States and Mexico. It is the world's lightest owl, although the long-whiskered owlet and the Tamaulipas pygmy owl are of a similarly diminutive length.[2] The mean body weight of this species is 40 g (1.4 oz). These tiny owls are 12.5 to 14.5 cm (4.9 to 5.7 in) long and have a wingspan of about 27 cm (10.5 in).[3] Their primary projection extends nearly past their tail. They have fairly long legs and often appear bow-legged. They can often be heard calling to one another just after dusk or at sunset. Their call is a high-pitched whinny or chuckle. The male and female dart around trees and call back and forth.


Elf owls usually choose abandoned, north-facing woodpecker cavities in saguaro cacti,[4] sycamores, cottonwoods, and other hardwood trees, to raise their young. The female usually lays three round, white eggs. The eggs are incubated for about 3 weeks before the chicks hatch. The young owlets fledge at about 10 weeks. Usually, chicks are born in mid-June or early July. By the end of July, they are almost always fledged and ready to set out on their own.


They are often found in chaparral, and are easily found during their breeding season. They live in cacti much like some birds, using the shade and climate the cacti provide.

Elf owls usually are not aggressive and feign death in any dangerous situation, especially when a threatening animal comes inside their saguaro.


The elf owl migrates to Arizona and New Mexico in the spring and summer. In the winter, it is found in central and southern Mexico. Migrant elf owls return north in mid-April to early May.


Elf owls feed mainly on insects, so occupy habitats with a ready supply of them. Agaves and ocotillos are ideal places for foraging, as moths and other insects may be found in their flowers. They are often seen chasing after flying insects, with a flight similar to a tyrant flycatcher's. They also feed on scorpions. The elf owls seem to not be bothered by the scorpion's stings. They feed primarily on invertebrates such as moths, crickets, scorpions, centipedes, and beetle.


Elf owls live 3 to 6 years; in captivity they may live up to 10 years.[5]


These subspecies are currently recognized:[6]

  • M. w. graysoni Ridgway, 1886 (extinct)
  • M. w. idonea (Ridgway, 1914)
  • M. w. sanfordi (Ridgway, 1914)
  • M. w. whitneyi (J. G. Cooper, 1861)

M. w. idonea, the subspecies in southernmost Texas to central Mexico, is resident, as are the isolated M. w. sanfordi of southernmost Baja California and M. w. graysoni (Socorro elf owl) of Socorro Island, southwest from the tip of Baja California. The Socorro elf owl apparently became extinct in the late 20th century, probably around 1970.

Elf owls in fiction[edit]

An elf owl named Gylfie is a major character in the Guardians of Ga'Hoole book series by Kathryn Lasky, and the 2010 film adaptation. An elf owl plays a major role in the technothriller The Elf Owl and Imagined Amenities, by Sam Biondo.


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Micrathene whitneyi". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ "Elf Owl – Micrathene whitneyi". Owling.com. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  3. ^ Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World by Claus Konig, Friedhelm Welck & Jan-Hendrik Becking. Yale University Press (1999), ISBN 978-0-300-07920-3.
  4. ^ Hardy, P., Morisson, M. (2001) The Wilson Bulletin 113(1)pp:23-32
  5. ^ "Elf Owl Fact Sheet". Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  6. ^ "Micrathene whitneyi". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 2011-11-01. 
  • "National Geographic" Field Guide to the Birds of North America ISBN 0-7922-6877-6
  • Handbook of the Birds of the World Vol 5, Josep del Hoyo editor, ISBN 84-87334-25-3
  • "National Audubon Society" The Sibley Guide to Birds, by David Allen Sibley, ISBN 0-679-45122-6
  • "The Elf Owl and Imagined Amenities," by Sam Biondo (Kindle edition), December 2013,ASIN: B00FY5491W

External links[edit]