A Reference for North and Central American Owls
The Elf Owl is one of the two smallest owls in the world. Only one other owl, in a small region of Peru, is close to this tiny. This owl’s small size, desert habitat and nocturnal nature make it easily distinguished from any other species in its range. It is one of the most migratory owls in North America that completely leaves the US in winter. Here you will find photos, recordings and a brief field notes section to help identify and enjoy this tiny owl. The photos include descriptive text to further help with identification, markings, location, behavior, and description. A more in depth write up can be found on its natural history page.
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This is paired Elf Owls singing a duet. The set begins with a male’s primary call and has the female adding a few calls (resemble the males primary call but generally softer and shorter).
Many of the Elf Owl calls are given by both male and female so sex may not be discernable. This is probably a female and what might be heard early in the evening as the owls begin to call.
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Elf Owl – Micrathene whitneyi
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 in its habitat except possibly the Ferruginous (Ridgeway’s) Pygmy-Owl, although it is about 2/3 the weight, and is 20% shorter in length. It also lacks the Pygmy’s distinctive chest streaking, white crown streaks, 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 up 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 or orangish 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.