Not only is the elf owl the world’s smallest and lightest owl, it is also very cute and smart. When in danger, the elf owl hides its light-colored belly with its darker wings and successfully camouflages itself in the surroundings. Go through more such amazing facts about elf owls in this BirdEden post.
Wise Old Owl
A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
– Edward Hersey Richards
The elf owl is the smallest, lightest, and tiniest of all owls. It belongs to the family Strigidae (true owl or typical owl). Its Latin name, Micrathene whitneyi, (micra – small; athena – for Greek Goddess Pallas Athene), comes from the American geologist Josiah Dwight Whitneyi’s name.
This nocturnal species is mostly found in the southwestern parts of America and Mexico. Its general habitat includes riparian conserves (places with enough water), deserts, river valleys, mountain ranges, and canyons. The dietary and living habits of the elf owl change, depending on the type of habitat in which it dwells.
One of its main characteristics is its ability to produce varied kinds of sounds and vocalizations. The elf owl produces distinguished sounds for attracting a mate, sending warning signals, marking its territory, and foretelling danger. Each of these sounds, however, is high-pitched.
This BirdEden article gives you a list of entertaining as well as factual details about the elf owl.
Scientific Classification of The Elf Owl
Binomial name:Micrathene whitneyi
Fun Facts About the Elf Owl
The elf owl is the tiniest owl of the species, measuring only 12.5 – 14.5 centimeters (4.9 – 5.7 inches) long on an average.
It is also the world’s lightest owl, weighing not more than 40 grams (1.4 ounces).
When in danger, the elf owl prefers flying away rather than fighting back.
Apart from flying, the elf owl can walk, hop, and climb like a parrot as well.
The elf owl is capable of producing almost a dozen different vocalizations. A high-pitched chuckle is one of them.
The owl takes its Latin name, Micrathene whitneyi, from Josiah Dwight Whitney, an American geologist from the 19th century.
It is sometimes also called ‘Dwarf Owl’, ‘Whitney’s Owl’, ‘Texas Elf Owl’, ‘Whitney’s Elf Owl’, and ‘enano’ (Mexican).
The elf owl is the most nocturnal of all owls.
This owl species is notorious for ‘playing dead’ until it is out of danger and safe.
The male elf owl weighs lesser than the female elf owl.
Up ahead, read about the elf owl and its habitat, diet, behavior, reproduction, communication, lifespan, subspecies, and other characteristics.
Distribution and Habitat
The elf owl is a resident of the southwestern parts of United States and Mexico. It is a migrating bird. During the spring and summer seasons, it migrates to Arizona and New Mexico. It returns to Mexico for the winter, and stays there until the next migration cycle begins. Many of its subspecies are found in parts of California, Nevada, and Texas as well.
They are mostly found dwelling in riparian woodlands (habitats with enough water), various parts of the Sonoran Desert Region, and in areas where the saguaro cactus is found in plenty. The elf owl does not build its own nest; it dwells in tree holes dug by woodpeckers in trees like the oak, sycamore, or giant cacti. The elf owl selects tree holes that are well above the ground to stay safe from its predators.
The elf owl is a grayish-yellow bird, with a brownish-gray plumage, and a greenish-yellow beak. Its wings are dark-brownish, whereas its belly is lighter, mostly white in color. Its breast is lined with distinguished vertical stripes. An occasional elf owl can be found that sports a reddish-brown color, with a brown or red head.
The tiniest owl of its species, the elf owl does not grow taller than 6 inches. The average height of this species range between 12.5 to 14.5 centimeters, i.e., 4.9 to 5.7 inches long.
The heaviest an elf owl can weigh is only 40 grams (1.4 ounces). The average adult female weighs more than its male counterpart.
The skull of this owl is round in shape and featherless. Unlike other owls, it does not have ear tufts on its head.
Its wings are dark brown in color, spanning a length of almost 48 – 61 centimeters (18.9 – 24.0 inches).
The feet of an elf owl are large, and are adapted in such a way that they aid in hunting and killing prey. The pointy-curved talons are used during hunting and killing. The elf owl has a reversible external toe, which enables the bird to perch easily and without any difficulty.
The elf owl has bright yellow eyes, with distinguished white spots over the eyebrows. A distinct white ‘v’ mark on the forehead separates the eyebrows.
This owl species can produce sounds in more than a dozen different vocalizations. The males produce a high-pitched sound similar to that of a whinny or a chuckle. Since they are nocturnal, elf owls call out to each other by hooting, mostly after dusk and before dawn.
Hunting and Diet
The elf owl is a nocturnal creature, and hence, is most active after dusk, during the night, and just before dawn. Its survival adaptations include better hearing, improved night vision, and amazing line of flight. It makes complete use of these advantages when hunting its prey. It is a carnivore and can feed on anything like small insects, mammals, reptiles like snakes, lizards, and sometimes, even scorpions. The prey is always torn apart with the help of its beak and feet before it is eaten.
An elf owl may alter its diet according to a change in the weather conditions. It is a clever eater, as it knows best to get rid of the scorpion stingers first, before they feed on them. Their diet includes a variety of creatures like spiders, centipedes, crickets, moths, mammals, etc.
Communication and Behavior
Elf owls are most active during the night and early hours of the morning, and can be heard calling out to each other. The owl is characterized by its ability to produce many different kinds of sounds and vocalizations. The sounds and calls vary according to the situation they are in, whether it’s danger, the mating season, a warning call, or guarding their territory.
These birds can either be migratory or sedentary birds, depending on their habitat. They are not aggressive creatures. On sensing danger, they become alert and erect. They are creatures who prefer flying away in the other direction, rather than staying and facing the danger or their enemies.
Mating and Reproduction
Elf owls are known to be annual breeders. Their mating season ranges from April to July. The male selects a prospective nesting site and calls out to a female in a high-pitched sound from the nest. The mating happens mostly during the last few weeks of June. The female usually lays three eggs at a time. The gestation period of the eggs can be anywhere between 24 – 28 days.
Young ones are hatched after a period of 3 – 4 weeks, and are grayish-white in color. Their mother takes care of them by feeding them with worms for up to 3- 4 weeks after they are born. At the end of 10 weeks, the owlets are fully grown and ready to take flight.
The average elf owl is found to survive for 3 – 6 years in the wild. This number increases to 10 – 14 years if the owl is held and nurtured in captivity.
Current Population and Threat
Although this species is abundant and still has a very large range, a constant trend of a decrease in their population has been observed in the past decade. According to ‘The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species’, this species has been listed as ‘Least Concern’.
Despite the decreasing trend, the population of the Elf Owl does not approach a level of vulnerability or extinction according to the IUCN standards.
Four subspecies of the Elf Owl have been officially recognized:
1. Micrathene whitneyi sanfordi – found in the southern parts of Baja California.
2. Micrathene whitneyi graysoni – found just in Socorro, an island towards the south-west of the tip of Baja California.
3. Micrathene whitneyi whitneyi – breeds mostly in the south-western parts of USA, but migrates into Mexico during the winter. This subspecies is also found in south-eastern parts of California, Nevada, Central Arizona, and Western Texas.
4. Micrathene whitneyi idonea – found in southern Texas.
Conservation and Legal Protection
The most important and sole threat to the population of elf owls is loss of habitat. Deforestation and cutting down of trees like the cottonwood, oakwood, and wooded canyons result in lack of places for the owl to dwell in.
The population of these birds in the high, mountainous, and snowy regions suffer from loss of habitat due to the destruction of trees and tree holes because of the melting of snow. Reduction of the riparian habitats has also resulted in a decline in their population.
Although not endangered, the decline in the number of elf owls is a matter of concern. It is our duty to ensure that the condition doesn’t worsen any further so that it may come to a point where the extinction of this beautiful species needs to be fought.