Elf owl

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Elf owl
Micrathene whitneyi 29APR12 Madera Canyon AZ.jpg
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Strigiformes
Family: Strigidae
Genus: Micrathene
Coues, 1866
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] It is also the world's smallest owl.[3] 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).[4] Their primary projection (flight feather) 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,[5] sycamores, cottonwoods, and other hardwood trees, to raise their young. While some cavity nesters utilize vegetation as nesting substrate, elf owls have been observed removing this vegetation and prefer a bare cavity.[6] While three eggs is a very common clutch size, females may lay anywhere from one to five eggs in springtime (late March to early May). The eggs are usually round or oval shaped with a white coloration and are from 26.8 x 23.2 to 29.9 x 25.0 mm in size. 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. During dusk and just before dawn are the times this owl is most active, however, hunting is performed mostly during nocturnal hours.[7] Straight line flight is often deployed for this purpose but they will use an arced flight when in the vicinity of the nest and for flying to and from perches. 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. Territories are established by the male and are defended by both the male and the female. This is done through the use of song.[8] During the breeding season Elf owls are monogamous and stay in breeding pairs, but can be found in small groups during migration and when mobbing predators. Adults as well as young can be subject to predation by other predatory birds such as jays, hawks, and owls.


The Elf Owl migrates to the southwest United States; California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, in the spring and summer for breeding. In the winter, it is found in central and southern Mexico. Migrant elf owls return north in mid-April to early May. Resident populations occur in a couple of places in south central Mexico and along the Baja peninsula.[9]


Elf owls feed mainly on insects, so they 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. In urban areas they can be seen utilizing outdoor lights that attract bugs as areas for insect hunting. They are often seen chasing after flying insects, with a flight similar to a tyrant flycatcher's. They also feed on scorpions. Once the owl has killed the scorpion, they can be observed removing the stinger before consumption.[10] The elf owls seem to not be bothered by scorpion stings. They feed primarily on invertebrates such as moths, crickets, scorpions, centipedes, and beetles. They will also feed on small mammals, reptiles and birds.


Elf owls live 3 to 6 years; in captivity they may live up to 10 years.[11] The most common types of mortality for these owls are predation, exposure, and inter-species as well as intra-species competition.[12]


These subspecies are currently recognized:[13]

  • 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.

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. IUCN. 2012. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
  2. ^ "Elf Owl – Micrathene whitneyi". Owling.com. Retrieved 30 March 2013.
  3. ^ Sciences, written by Edward Stanley Brinkley ; foreword by Craig Tufts ; photographs supplied by VIREO, the Academy of Natural (2008). Field guide to birds of North America. New York [u.a.]: Sterling. ISBN 978-1-4027-3874-6.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Hardy, P., Morisson, M. (2001) The Wilson Bulletin 113(1)pp:23-32
  6. ^ HENRY, SUSANNA G.; GEHLBACH, FREDERICK R.; Poole, A.; Gill, F. (1999). "Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi)". The Birds of North America Online. doi:10.2173/bna.413.
  7. ^ "Elf Owl - Distribution | Neotropical Birds Online". neotropical.birds.cornell.edu.
  8. ^ "Elf Owl - Distribution | Neotropical Birds Online". neotropical.birds.cornell.edu.
  9. ^ Backhouse, Frances (2013). Owls of North America. Buffalo, N.Y.: Firefly Books. ISBN 1770852328.
  10. ^ "Micrathene whitneyi (elf owl)". Animal Diversity Web.
  11. ^ "Elf Owl Fact Sheet". Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Retrieved 30 March 2013.
  12. ^ "Micrathene whitneyi (elf owl)". Animal Diversity Web.
  13. ^ "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]