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Elf Owl

The tiniest owl in the world, no bigger than a sparrow!

Elf Owl

Micrathene whitneyi


desert, oak canyons

Fun Facts

Most Elf Owls breed in three populations in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands and winter in southern Mexico. Three other disjunct populations in southern Baja California and Puebla, Mexico, are nonmigratory.

When the desert heats up in spring, one of the most enjoyable nature activities is a walk in the dark. Not only do you avoid the sun, but you have a good chance at hearing the unmistakable laughing calls of an Elf Owl. Appropriately named, this owl really is small, about the size of a sparrow! Elf Owls are secondary cavity-nesters—they rely on other species to carve out the holes they prefer to occupy. In Southeast Arizona, these owls can be found in the desert and also up in the pine/oak forests, primarily nesting in mature saguaros and sycamore respectively. Elf Owls are mostly insectivorous, and this may be one reason why they are migratory, a rare trait among owls. They leave Arizona in September for subtropical, thorn woodlands in Mexico where arthropod abundance is higher during winter.

Elf Owl is listed as a species of conservation concern by the Arizona Game and Fish Department due to loss of nesting habitat from development and potential fires in the desert driven by buffelgrass. At higher elevations, Elf Owls sometimes use free-standing nestboxes. With the ongoing loss of large saguaros, Tucson Audubon is investigating whether nestboxes can be used as a conservation tool for them at lower elevations.

Written by Matt Griffiths