Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi)

Elf Owl

[order] STRIGIFORMES | [family] Strigidae | [latin] Micrathene whitneyi | [authority] Cooper, 1861 | [UK] Elf Owl | [FR] Chevechette elfe | [DE] Elfenkauz | [ES] Mochuelo de los Saguaros | [NL] Cactusuil


Monotypic species


The Elf Owl is not only North America’s smallest owl but one of the smallest in the world. A nocturnal owl that is believed to completely leave the U.S. for Mexico in the winter. The owls tiny size makes it distinctive and not likely to be confused with any other owl except possibly the Pygmy-Owl, although it is about 2/3 the weight and 20% shorter in length. It also lacks the Pygmy’s distinctive chest streaking and has a significantly different call. Since this owl is not normally active in the daylight hours it also would not generally be confused with the Pygmy-Owl except possibly at dusk and dawn when both owls may be active. its desert habitat also separates this from the Northern Pygmy although it will move into lower canyons as nesting territory becomes scarce late in the spring. Separated from the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl by its shorter tail and more grayish brown (rather than rufus) upper parts. This is one of only two highly migratory species of owls in North America (the other being the Flammulated Owl) and both are also highly insectivorous. The Elf Owl has a horn color bill with a yellowish tip and edges and lemon yellow iris (eyes). This owl lacks ear tufts. Length is 5 3/4″ (smaller than a House Finch) and the sexes are alike.

Physical charateristics

A tiny, small-headed, short-tailed, earless owl, the size of a chunky sparrow. Underparts softly striped with rusty; “eyebrows” white. Hides by day in woodpecker holes in saguaros, telephone poles, or trees. Found at night by calls.

Listen to the sound of Elf Owl

[audio:http://www.planetofbirds.com/MASTER/STRIGIFORMES/Strigidae/sounds/Elf Owl.mp3]

Copyright remark: Most sounds derived from xeno-canto

wingspan min.: 0 cm wingspan max.: 0 cm
size min.: 13 cm size max.: 15 cm
incubation min.: 21 days incubation max.: 25 days
fledging min.: 27 days fledging max.: 28 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 2  
      eggs max.: 4  


North America, Middle America : Southwest USA to Central Mexico


Saguaro deserts, wooded canyons. Within its United States range, found in any lowland habitat providing cover and good nesting cavities. Most common
in deserts with many tall saguaro cactus or large mesquites, and in canyons in the foothills, especially around sycamores or large oaks.


Early in breeding season, male sings loudly and persistently at night to defend territory and attract female. In courtship, male feeds female. Male sings from inside potential nest hole to lure female to it.
Nest: Site is almost always in old woodpecker hole in tree or giant cactus (or in utility pole). Height varies: usually 15 -50′ above ground in streamside sycamores, 10-
30′ up in saguaros. No nest material added, eggs laid in bottom of cavity.
Clutch 3, sometimes 2 -4, rarely 1 -5. White. Incubation is by female only, about 24 days; male brings food to female during incubation.
Young: Female remains with young most of the time at first, while male brings food for female and young. After about 2 weeks, female hunts for food also. Young leave nest at about 27 –
28 days, are cared for by parents for at least several days thereafter.

Feeding habits

Insects and other arthropods. In summer, feeds on moths, beetles, and crickets, as well as katydids and other insects. Also feeds on scorpions and spiders. Rarely eats lizards and other small vertebrates.

Behavior: Hunts only at dusk and at night. Watches from a perch and swoops down to take prey from ground, or flies low, pausing to hover before pouncing.
Flies out from a perch to catch flying insects. May hover among foliage and catch insects that it flushes from the leaves. May remove stinger before eating scorpions.

Video Elf Owl


copyright: mychalupa


This species has a very large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). Despite the fact that the population trend appears to be decreasing, the decline is not believed to be sufficiently rapid to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
Elf Owl status Least Concern


Southwestern United States to central Mexico.
Migration: North of the Mexican border, strictly a summer resident, arriving early in spring and departing fairly early in fall.

Distribution map

Elf Owl distribution range map

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