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Species Guide

Northern Pygmy Owl

Glaucidium californicum

The Northern Pygmy Owl, Glaucidium californicum, is a diminutive raptor, a mere 15-17 cm in length. Its plumage comes in hues of gray, brownish-gray, or rufous, and it sports a round, white-spotted head with a weakly defined facial disc. The upper breast, wings, and notably long tail are darker, while the eyes shine a bright yellow and the bill presents a yellowish-green. A distinctive feature is the pair of black nape spots, edged in white, on the back of its head, mimicking a second pair of eyes. The lower breast is white, adorned with vertical streaking, and the legs are feathered down to the toes, each equipped with formidable talons.

Identification Tips

When attempting to identify the Northern Pygmy Owl, look for its long tail relative to its body size, the striking eye-like spots on the back of the head, and the streaked underparts. The yellow eyes and yellowish-green bill can also aid in identification, especially when contrasted against its darker head.


This owl favors a range of environments from temperate to tropical moist forests, savannas, and wetlands. In the Pacific Northwest, such as Oregon and Washington, it is often found nesting and foraging in the heart of dense, continuous forests near streams.


The Northern Pygmy Owl is native to the western reaches of North America, with its range stretching from central British Columbia through the southwestern United States and into northwestern Mexico.


The males of this species are known to perch atop the tallest conifers to emit their territorial calls, creating a ventriloquistic effect in sloped terrains that can baffle and bewilder those on the ground. Their diminutive size and coloration make them particularly challenging to spot.

Song & Calls

The territorial calls of the Northern Pygmy Owl are a key distinguishing feature, with variations in the calls being used to propose taxonomic splits. Birds at higher elevations in Arizona and Mexico produce a two-note call, while their northern relatives issue a repeated single-note call.


Breeding takes place in tree cavities, often repurposing old woodpecker holes. The female lays a clutch of 2-7 eggs, with 4-6 being typical. Nest trees can include species such as Douglas fir, western redcedar, and western hemlock. The male's role is to defend the territory and provide food for the female and young, while the female incubates the eggs and broods the nestlings.


Contrary to the "sit-and-wait" label, Northern Pygmy Owls are somewhat active hunters, moving from perch to perch and swooping down on prey, which includes small mammals, birds, and large insects. They are diurnal hunters, with activity also peaking at dawn and dusk.

Conservation status

The Northern Pygmy Owl is currently listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, indicating that, for now, this species does not face an immediate threat of extinction.

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