Northern Pygmy Owl

northern pygmy owl

The Northern pygmy owl is a tiny raptor found in the West from Alaska to Central America.

For years we have been driving from Gardiner to Cooke City, Montana, through Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, during the winter months. We love to look at the bison, elk and pronghorn and we usually can find some moose around Pebble Creek. Some winters we only make the trip once, other winters several times. Last week though was the first time that we had made the drive in November.

For the last four or five years, we have been specifically looking for a small bird of prey called the Northern pygmy owl. We knew approximately where to look, from Undine Falls to Hell’s Roaring Creek, but we had never gotten lucky. This time was different. At about 0800, near Blacktail Deer Creek Plateau Drive entrance, we stopped and asked a Yellowstone Forever tour van driver what they were looking at. She pointed to a small bird near the top of a dead tree. With two words, “pygmy owl,” our luck changed and we photographed our first Northern pygmy owl in Yellowstone.

The Northern pygmy owl is a tiny raptor only about seven inches long. I recall seeing an injured one that a concerned citizen had brought to the Department of Fish and Game regional office. When I looked in the box, I was amazed to see that it was hardly larger than a house sparrow. There are other similar-sized small owls such as the ferruginous pygmy owl, flammulated owl and Northern saw-whet, but only the elf owl of the Southwest is smaller.

The Northern pygmy owl is recognized by a round head (no ear tufts), spotted forehead, yellow bill and yellow eyes and sharply defined brown streaks on a white belly. It has short wings, but a long, barred tail.

It also sports two well-defined spots on the back of the head. Scientists believe that these function as false eyes, helping to deter predators such as other owls, weasels and pine martens.

Despite their small size, Northern pygmy owls are fierce little predators. They eat a wide variety of critters from mice to insects, but songbirds are their main prey. They also attack and kill prey much larger than themselves including quail, woodpeckers and even chickens.

Their propensity for a bird diet has created an owl with a few differences from other owls. For instance, the bulk of their hunting is done in the early morning and late evening. They don’t do much nocturnal hunting. That has led to some physiological changes as well. Most owls have asymmetrical ears, meaning one is placed lower or further back than the other one, and facial disks which combine to give them incredible directional hearing and the ability to triangulate the location of prey in the dark. Northern pygmy owls lack these features and depend upon their acute vision to find prey.

For a predator, prey is always in short supply and going hungry is common. The pygmy owl we saw in Yellowstone was likely having a hard time finding a lot of songbirds this time of year and may have been mouse hunting. When hunting is good though, they will cache food in tree hollows or even hang prey, shrike-like, on thorns for later consumption.

The diurnal habits of the Northern pygmy owl make it, theoretically, an easier owl to find. However, while populations seem strong, this owl is never abundant. It doesn’t migrate latitudinally, but may drop down in elevation, likely why the owl we saw seems to only be present in the winter.

One other way to find these owls is to watch for small birds. They will mob a pygmy owl if they find one—brave when you consider that such behavior might put them on the dinner plate.

I hope that our recent encounter with the Northern pygmy owl is the start of a long relationship. They are too fascinating to only see once every four years.

TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.

Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!

On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.

Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf. You can donate any amount you wish, it all helps to support the wildlife you love.

If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho