Elf Owl Wednesday

Last week we learned about one of the tallest owls in the world, the Great Gray Owl.  This week we’ll go to the other extreme: the Elf Owl, which is the smallest owl in the world.

Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi)


Standing at around 5 inches in length, the Elf Owl is no larger than a sparrow or small thrush. These tiny owls have brown/gray upperparts and white/cinnamon colored barred stripes on its underparts. Their legs are relatively long and covered with small bristles. Elf Owls have piercing yellow eyes that are surrounded by a black rim. Over the eyes there is a narrow white eyebrow. Other owl species have 12 tail feathers, but Elf Owls have only 10 tail feathers.

Elf Owl (Image via birds-of-north-america.net)


Resident of Baja, California  and Central Mexico. Breeds (summer) in parts of Arizona, New Mexcio, Texas, and Mexico. Winters in Mexico.


Sonoran saguaro deserts, large mesquites, wood canyons, riparian woods, montane forests of oak, thorn-scrub. Does surprisingly well in suburbs, but urbanization is a threat to this species.


Almost entirely insects, scorpions, spiders, but may rarely eat small vertebrates such as rodents, lizards, and small snakes. Elf Owls are crepuscular, meaning they forage most actively at dawn and dusk. They forage while flying, hovering, swerving, or grabbing insects off of trees.

elf owl
Elf Owl with a scorpion (Image via pinterest)


When male Elf Owls return to their breeding grounds, they will pick multiple potential nesting sites. Females will arrive later, and the male will sing from his cavity entrance to attract her attention. Once the female approaches, the male will continue to sing from inside his cavity to convince the female to go in and mate.

Elf Owls do not make their own cavities. In their Sonoran desert habitat, they rely on existing holes from woodpeckers such as the Acorn, Ladder-backed, and Gila Woodpeckers. In other habitats, they will nest in whatever large trees are available such as cottonwoods and sycamores. Although Elf Owls only stay with a mating partner for one season, they may use the same nest site for up to 3 years.

The female will incubate 3 white eggs for about 2 weeks (although 1-5 eggs is possible). She starts incubating once the second egg is laid. The hatching is asychronous; the first 2 eggs tend to hatch together while the third hatches a few days later. The owlets will nest for about 4 weeks. The parents will encourage the young to fledge by withholding food. An astounding fact about Elf Owls is that they have around a 90% nest rate, the highest of any owl in the world.


The males are known for a “chatter call”, 6 or 7 rapid squeaky notes that are higher pitched in the middle.


Locally common or abundant in manyareas of it’s range, but sharply declined in the lower Colorado River. Population trends are unclear, but they face threats such as urbanization, habitat loss, frequency of wild fires, and droughts.

Fun Facts: 

  • There are 4  subspecies: M. w. whitneyi, M. w. sadfordi, M. w. grayson, and M. w. idonea.
  • It’s assumed that owls migrate individually, but there’s some evidence that Elf Owls may sometimes migrate in small flocks.

Great Gray Owl Wednesday

This week’s featured owl is the captivating and mysterious Great Gray Owl of the northern boreal forests.

Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)

Great Gray Owls are one of the tallest owls in the world, standing at around 3 feet tall with a 5 foot wingspan. But don’t let it’s height fool you; it’s body size is an illusion. Weighting at only 2.5 pounds, Great Gray Owls have a small body core and an impressive number of fluffy feathers that make them seem bigger than they really are. Other North American owls, such as the Snowy Owl and Great Horned Owl are much larger in mass.

Cross-section taxidermy from the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen shows it’s body core compared to its feathers (Image by FunkMonk via wikimedia commons)

These owls sport beautiful silvery gray, white, and brown plumage. They have long tails and huge facial disks that have gray and brown concentric circles. In between their bright yellow eyes, Great Gray Owls have two pale arcs that form an “X” shape. Another distinctive feature is the white “bow tie”, which are patches of white feathers on their throats. Females are slightly larger and darker than males.


Canada and the Pacific Northwest, as well as Scandinavia, Mongolia, Russia, and Siberia. When food is scarce, some owls will irrupt southeast to the northern Midwestern and Northeastern regions of the United States. An irruption is an irregular migration to a location that is not normally part of a bird’s range, usually due to food scarcity.


Boreal forest, also know as taiga, with a combination of mixed woods/conifers and openings such as sedge meadows and wetlands in lowland areas. Also fir and pine forest next to montane meadows (ecosystems with seasonally moist to waterlogged soil)


Mainly small mammals, such as voles, pocket squirrels, mice, weasels, and other rodents. A small percentage of their diet is other birds. Great Gray Owls have terrific hearing and will mainly hunt by sound while sitting on a perch or gliding silently over the snow. Their large facial disks help them focus the sound, and they use their asymmetrical ears to locate the prey. They will plunge over a foot into snow to catch rodents. These owls mainly hunt at dusk and dawn.

Great Gray Owl (Image via pinterest)


Great Gray Owls do not build their own nests, they use abandoned raptor or corvid nests. They generally choose a nest near an open bog or meadow. Pairs are monogamous during breeding season. Males will feed the female as a courtship behavior and the pair will allopreen (preen each other). 

Snow depth seems to determine when a female will lay eggs. Depending on the region egg laying can take place anywhere between mid-March and late May. Females will start incubating the eggs after the first one is laid. A brood may have between 2-5 eggs. After 28-36 days of incubation by the female, the eggs will hatch. The male will supply the food while the female feeds the young for about 3 weeks. At that point, the owlets may start to slowly venture from the nest. The female will usually abandon them to be taken care of by the male after they owlets fledge. Great Gray Owls generally have 1 brood, but may breed multiple times if prey is abundant.


Deep, powerful whoos that may be repeated up to 10 times and descend in pitch towards the end. Females are higher-pitched than the males. A bi-syllabic contact call: doo-it doo-it. 


Due to their elusive nature, it’s difficult for ornithologists to get a clear number on population. Estimates are around 31,000 individuals in North America. They are considered “vulnerable” in some areas. The greatest threat to Great Gray Owls is timber harvest, and land management programs are in place to protect their habitat. It’s unclear how climate change and its effect on rodent populations will impact Great Gray Owls.

Fun Facts:

  • Most of the year these owls are nocturnal, but they tend to be more diurnal in the summer and midwinter. Some scientist believe their proportionally small eye-size contributes to a partially-diurnal lifestyle.
  • Great Gray Owls tend to be less aggressive than other raptors in general, but will fiercely defend their nests and young. They are also one of the few owls that have been documented in performing distraction displays to lure intruders away.
  • The Great Gray Owl is the provincial bird of Manitoba.
By Arne List (http://www.flickr.com/photos/arne-list/2363789109/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Burrowing Owl Wednesday

This week for Owl Wednesday I chose the Burrowing Owl. Why? Just Google “Burrowing Owl” and look at the images. Cuteness abounds. You won’t be disappointed. 🙂

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)


Burrowing Owls are small owls (about blue jay-sized) with long legs and short tails. These brown and white birds are mottled/spotted on their underparts and horizontally barred on their upper parts. Their facial disk features a prominent white eyebrow and a white lower margin below the bill. Burrowing Owls have bright yellow eyes, but some juveniles in the Florida population have olive or brown eyes that may transition to a gold color with brown spots. Burrowing Owls are the only North American owls that are non-reversed size dimorphic. This means they are the only owl species where the males are larger than the females in measurement. These owls are also unique because they are diurnal (active during the day), although they can be nocturnal as well.


Western population north to south from Canada to Arizona/New Mexico and west to east from California through the Midwestern states are migratory/partially migratory. They winter in Texas, parts of Central America, and South America. Populations in the Southwest, the northern part of Central America, Florida, and the Caribbean are residents.

By travelwayoflife (Flickr: Owl Family Portrait) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Open places, such as prairie lands, range lands, deserts, coastlines, open scrubland, golf course, sage brush, pastures, road sides, agricultural fields, vacant lots, housing developments. They are usually found with prairie dog towns of the West, but have become closely  associated with humans due to habitat loss.


Mainly insects. Rodents, small birds, lizards, snakes, beetles, grasshoppers. Sometimes jackrabbits, cottontails, and young prairie dogs. They catch prey with their talons by walking, running, flying, and hovering. They hunt most actively at dusk and dawn.


As their name suggests, Burrowing Owls nest in burrows underground. They are the only owl in the world to consistently do so. These owls are semi-colonial, so they can be found nesting closely in small groups. Many owls in the Western population depend on existing burrows from prairie dogs, ground squirrels, armadillos, and other ground-nesting mammals. However, there are not many large burrowing animals in the Florida population, so they tend to excavate their own nests.

Burrowing Owls have 1 brood per year, with a clutch size of typically between 4-9 eggs. Some females will begin to incubate once they lay their first egg, but some Canadian females wait until half the clutch is laid. Eggs are incubated for about a month and owlets will come above ground starting at around 2 weeks. The young fledge at about 6-7 weeks old. Burrowing Owls will return to their breeding grounds between mid-March through May, and owlets tend to disperse in late summer.

Burrowing Owl Family (Image by animalspot.net/burrowing-owl.html)


2 or 3 note wa-WAAH-oo by male. Females respond with eep!. Famous for “rattlesnake rasp” given by nesting females and owlet, which makes these birds sound almost exactly like a rattlesnake. Alarm chatter is WEEt-whit-whit-whit with typically 5-7 sharp notes.


Populations have decreased over time. Listed as endangered in Canada, and although not listed under the Endangered Species Act, considered endangered in 15 of the 19 states where they live. Threats include habitat loss, prairie dog/ground squirrel control programs, agricultural practices, pesticides, and collisions with vehicles.  Artificial nesting sites, protective legislation, and habitat preservation programs have all aided Burrowing Owls to recover in some areas.

Fun Facts:

  • Burrowing Owls will line the entrance of their burrows  with dry manure. Some scientist believe dung is used to attract beetles and other insects for food, while others think its to mask their scent to mammals. However, they will line their burrows with other items such as corn cobs, pieces of bone, feathers, metal foil, bottle caps, and other man-made trash.
  • The species name, cunicularia, derives from the Latin word cunicularius, meaning “burrower” or “miner”.
  • DNA microsatellite analysis shows that there are many genetic differences between the Western and Florida subspecies. The evidence from this study suggests that these species diverged approximately 350,000 years ago.
  • All other small owls have vertical breast markings, while Burrowing Owls have horizontal barring.
Burrowing Owls (Image from vk.com via Gary Nealy Jr./Pinterest)


Owl Wednesday!: Barn Owl

Guess what, friends? The weekly featured bird profiles are returning!

I used to write a weekly bird profile column, each season about a different family (such as Migration Monday, Waterfowl Wednesday, etc, links are to the right on this page). I stopped these in the spring (not intentionally, things just got super busy!), but now they’re back. This autumn’s featured family: Owls!

I was inspired to do an autumn owl feature for two reasons: 1. I just love owls and 2. Dave bought me the Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean by Scott Weidensaul for my birthday. He also bought me Hummingbirds: A Life-size Guide to Every Species by Fogden, Taylor, and Williamson, but we’ll save that for another season. (Fun fact: owls are more closely related to hummingbirds than they are hawks/falcons). I also recently purchased this lovely Barn Owl print by David Kiehm of Dead Studio. So without further ado, let’s talk about Barn Owls!

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)


Barn Owls are one the most distinctive owls in the world. Their heart-shaped faces and pale bodies give them a ghost-like appearance as they silently fly through the night. Barn Owls have long legs and round wings combined with short tails. Their heads and upperparts are a tawny brown while their underparts are pale and mottled. Males and females look similar, but females tend to be more heavily spotted. They have large black eyes and lack ear tufts. Barn Owls have a pectinate middle claw; a modified comb-like talon mainly used for preening and parasite control.

Barn Owl chicks go through  two downs coats. A white natal coat is later replaced by a thicker gray coat. It takes about three molt cycles for young owlets to replace all their juvenal flight feathers.

6-6 we're ready for our closeup!
Young Barn Owlets at various development stages (Screen shot taken by BirdNation from Cornell Lab’s Barn Owl cam)


Barn Owls are the most widespread raptors found on the planet. They can be found all across the continental United States, Mexico, and South America. They also live in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.


Open land; grasslands, marshes, fields, open woodlands, farms, prairies, and desert. Generally avoids dense forests.

barn owl
Barn Owl (Image via Pinterest.com)


90% rodents. Rat, voles, mice, shrews, lemming, rabbits, and bats are common prey items. Occasionally eats birds. Barn Owls swallow their prey whole and cough up pellets  twice a day with undigested materials. While nesting, they will cache prey items for later use. A nocturnal hunter that tends to stay low to the ground and moves slowly.


Barn Owls are generally monogamous and mate for life (although polygamy has been observed sometimes). Males will attract females by doing flight displays, and when a nest location is selected, will bring prey to the female. Barn Owls nest in cavities and will use artificial nest boxes. The female will line the nest with shredded regurgitated pellets before laying 3-8 eggs (but usually 4-6). A new egg is laid every 2-3 days. This means that chicks will hatch 2-3 days apart putting the older owlets at an advantage. Eggs are incubated between 29-34 days, with young fledging about 50-60 days post-hatch.

The mortality rate of Barn Owls in fairly high. Competition for food among 4-6 owlets is fierce, and often times younger chicks will not survive if food sources are scarce. It is possible however that the younger owlets can survive if prey is abundant. Barn Owls can have up to 3 possibly broods per year and can breed at any point during the year, even in their Northern-most range.

2-17 snoozing together
Female (left) and male (right) owls in nest box (Screen shot taken by BirdNation from Cornell Lab’s Barn Owl cam)


Hair-raising, high-pitched screams, hisses, and screeches. Can have between 4-15 different vocalizations


Populations are hard to track, but may have slightly increased in some areas and listed as a “special-concern” species in other areas. Sensitive in changes to agricultural practices, suburban/urban development, and pesticides. Often struck by cars. Nest boxes have helped numbers improve in many areas.

Fun Facts:

  • Barn Owls are the only species in the family Tytonidae, while the other North American owls are in the family Strigidae. There are 46 races of Barn Owls worldwide. The North American race Tyto alba pratincola is the largest, while the Galapagos Island race is the smallest.
  • Barn Owls, unlike many other birds, will roost in their cavities all year, not just during breeding season.
  • Barn Owls have excellent hearing to help aid in hunting, but also have great low-light vision.
  • Barn Owl mates form strong pair-bonds. They will often call to one another, allopreen (preen each other), and link beaks to strengthen their bond.
2-20 beak kisses
Pair-bonding (Screen shot taken by BirdNation from Cornell Lab’s Barn Owl cam)


The Daily Mockingbird

Summer is a special time of year to many people. People love the beach, having some time off, and spending time doing outdoor activities. There are certainly things that I appreciate about summer too, but it’s gone from being my favorite season as a kid to my least favorite. It’s my least favorite season to go birding because like many of us, birds would rather stay out of the heat as best they can and are less active during the day.

But there is something that’s really special to me about the summer since I’ve been into birding: the daily Mockingbird. It seems like once the end of May hits, I end up seeing Mockingbirds on a daily basis, usually multiple times throughout the day. Northern Mockingbirds happen to already be in my top 10 of favorite birds, but seeing the flash of their white wing patches in the middle of a summer’s day gives me a kind of joy I can’t describe. Here are some interesting facts about these vocal virtuosos.

  • Throughout the year Northern Mockingbirds, who can be found all across the United States, tend to be alone or in pairs. Whether they are alone or not, they are always conspicuous. Mockingbirds love being up high on trees, fences, or other platforms to proudly sing their songs, but you could also find them running around on the ground or grass.
  • The Northern Mockingbird’s scientific name, Mimus polyglottos, roughly translates to “mimics many harmonies”. If you’ve ever heard a bunch of different bird songs/calls in a row, but they are only coming from one bird, then you are listening to a Mockingbird performance. They are part of what is called the “Mimics” (which also includes Brown Thrashers and Gray Catbirds), meaning their songs are made up of songs fragments they learned from other species, as well as mockingbird-specific songs.
mockingbird 2
Northern Mockingbird at Strawbridge Lake (Image by BirdNation)
  • The number of songs a Mockingbird can sing varies based on its range, but many male Mockingbirds can sing up to 200 songs! Females sing also, but not as loudly or as often. Males tend to have two sets of repertoire: songs for summer and songs for fall. The songs themselves are a mix of long musical phrases that are repeated usually 2-6 times before a new phrase starts. A Mockingbird song can range anywhere from 20 seconds to a few hours! Singing is used as a way to defend their territory as well as sexual selection for mating. New songs can be learned throughout life.
  • A frequent movement done by Northern Mockingbirds is what’s called the “wing flash display”. In the display, they will partially or fully open their wings showing their large white patches while taking jerky steps forward. Some scientist thing this display may help startle insects and make them easier to catch. The odd this is though that other mockingbirds throughout the world that don’t have wing patches use this movement too…so we’re still not quite certain what the purpose of this display is.
  • 480px-Northern_Mocking_Bird_Display
    Mockingbird Wing Display (Image via wikipedia commons by By Manjithkaini (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia CommonsManjith Kainickara)

    Singing is a large part of a Mockingbird’s life, and they can sing both during the day and at night. Unmated males are probably the most insistent though; they make up most of the nocturnal singers. It’s more common for an unmated male to nocturnally sing during a full moon.

  • Northern Mockingbirds are popular in United States culture and are the state birds of 5 states: Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas (formerly in South Carolina).
northern mockingbird
Mockingbird eating crumbs at Palmyra Cove parking lot (Image by David Horowitz)
  • Northern Mockingbirds don’t just imitate other birds. They can also imitate dogs, cats, frogs, and even artificial sounds like car alarms! They may tend to fool us humans into thinking there’s another bird around, but other birds are not normally fooled by the Mockingbird’s mimicking ways.

Over the years, I’ve found many different Mockingbird territories in parks I frequent as well as other places in my area. My favorite is the Mockingbird who lives towards the front section of Boundary Creek. Dave and I took a walk on Sunday at Boundary, and my Mockingbird friend was running around the lawn grabbing bugs. He frequently flicked his long tail and hopped around to expose the bugs, then quickly snatched them up. He was quite amusing to watch. I love going to Boundary and finding him either running around or upon his treetop sings his little heart out (his picture is below).

Do you have an Mockingbirds that live nearby? Tell me your mockingbird story in the comments.

Boundary Creek Mockingbird (Image by BirdNation)

The Cardinal Family

This post is not about Northern Cardinals, it’s about Cardinals.

Wait…what? That was probably your reaction, but it’s true: this post is about Cardinals, not Northern Cardinals.

Let’s backtrack for a moment. What do you think of when someone says the word “cardinal”? You probably think of a handsome bright red male with a black face and red bill or a beautiful reddish-brown female with a red-orange bill. Right?

Cardinal Pair (Image via fanpop.com)

The cardinal we’re most familiar with is the Northern Cardinal, of which I described above. But what if I told you that the Northern Cardinal is not the only cardinal around?  And that cardinals can have other names, such as Scarlet Tanager or Blue Grosbeak(Now you’re probably completely confused haha)

Many people don’t realized that the term “Cardinal” is used to describe a whole family of birds. The family name is Cardinalidae, which consists of 18 species and 7 genera (in North America that is. Worldwide there are 52 species in 11 genera). This family includes grosbeaks, tanagers, and buntings, as well as the Northern Cardinal which bears the family name and its Southwestern cousin, the Pyrrhuloxia.

As with all families, members of the Cardinal family have similar characteristics. These include:

  • Bright and boldly colored males, females with brown tones
  • Small to medium-sized, with stock bodies and relatively short tails, with males being slightly larger
  • Stout conical bills (finch-like)
  • Being primarily found in woodlands, brushy areas, and hedgrows
  • Primarily feeding on fruits and seeds in the winter and insects and larvae in the summer
  • Building cup-shaped nests in shrubs of trees
  • Musical songs with whistled or warbled phrases, sharp and distinct calls (some females, such as the Northern Cardinal, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Pyrrhuloxia, sing too)

The following Cardinals are found in North America:

  • Genus Piranga: Hepatic Tanager, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Western Tanager, Flame-colored Tanager
  • Genus Pheucticus: Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Black-headed Grosbeak
  • Genus Rhodothraupis: Crimson-collard Grosbeak
  • Genus Cardinalis: Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia
  • Genus Cyanocompsa: Blue Bunting
  • Genus Passerina: Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Indigo Bunting, Varied Bunting, Painted Bunting
  • Genus Spiza: Dickcissel

So the next time someone says something like “Hey, did you see a cardinal? “ or “Do you like cardinals?” you can answer back with  “What kind?” (and really confuse them like I did in the beginning of this post). Then you can teach all your friends about the fascinating world of the family Cardinalidae :-).

What’s your favorite member of the Cardinalidae family? Tell me in the comments. (Mine are the Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, and of course, the beloved Northern Caridnal)


World Penguin Day

Today, April 25, is World Penguin Day! With their tuxedo plumage, penguins are probably one of the most recognizable birds in the world. As popular as they are, many penguin population are on the decline, especially the species that frequent or live on Antarctica. Climate change, habitat disturbance, human interaction, oil pollution, and non-native species are some of the reasons for their decline. It’s not too late to help penguins though! Check out these links to find out ways you can help penguins:

One Green Planet Website

Greenpeace Arctic Sanctuaries petition

Just in time for Wold Penguin Day, the group Oceanites released the first ever “State of Antarctic Penguins” (SOAP) report. All 5 species of penguins that utilize Antarctica were included in the study by Oceanites founder Ron Naveen (who describes his job as “I count penguins.” haha :-)). According to the report there are around 12 million penguins in Antarctica. You can read the “State of Antarctic Penguins” report at this link.

So in honor of penguins worldwide, here are some fun facts about these cute black-and-white birds.

  • When you think of penguins, you probably imagine them walking around in the snow in Antarctica. However, only 2 of the approximately 17 penguin species live in Antarctica (there’s some debate over how many species there actually are, some say up to 19). They are the Emperor Penguin and the Adelie Penguin. The remaining penguin species live in more tropical climates.
Penguin Id Chart (Image via Pinterest)
  • Almost all penguins live exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere…except one. The Galapagos Penguin is the only species to live north of the equator.
  • The largest living penguin species in the world is the Emperor Penguin. They stand about 3-1/2 feet tall and can weight 77 pounds or more. The smallest living penguin species is the Little Blue, who stands about 16 inches tall and weighs only 2 pounds.
  • Penguins are flightless birds. Over time, their wings evolved into flippers used for agile swimming. While swimming, a layer of air in their smooth plumage aids with buoyancy and insulates them in the frigid waters. Some species can reach up to 22 miles per hour while swimming.
  • Most penguin species are highly social and live in colonies. They form monogamous breeding pairs. Smaller species lay 2 eggs per clutch, while the Emperor and King Penguin species lay only 1.
A Gentoo and 2 King Penguins walk on the beach

Image by By Liam Quinn from Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

  • All penguins have countershaded plumage. Their black and white plumage helps them to become camouflaged. A predator below, such as an orca, would have trouble distinguish a penguin’s white belly from the water’s reflection.
  • Most birds molt a few feathers at a time, but penguins molt all their feathers at the same time, called catastrophic molting. Penguins are land bound for 2-3 weeks since they are not waterproof during molting.
  •  Some species create loose nest out of pebbles and feathers. Emperor Penguin males actual incubate their single egg on their feet. The egg sits underneath their brood pouch (which is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels) to stay warm. After a female lays the egg she transfers it to the male. The female will go out the sea for about 2 months while the male balances the egg on his feet for 64 days throughout the harsh winter.
Emperor Penguins with chick (Image by Robyn Mundy via antarctica.gov.au)

What’s your favorite species of penguin? Tell me in the comments below.