Birds of Nakusp: Pygmy Owl

At this time of year, I often get phone calls from residents who report seeing a small owl in a tree.

Gary Davidson

Arrow Lakes News

At this time of year, I often get phone calls from residents who report seeing a small owl in a tree. Most often these sightings are Northern Pygmy-Owls. Very few of these tiny predators breed in the valley, but most years, a few move in for the winter. Occasionally one of the reports turns out to be a Northern Saw-whet Owl instead. Although this owl is actually more common than the pygmy-owl, it is much less often reported. The Northern Saw-whet is almost exclusively nocturnal, spending most of their day sleeping, usually deep within the branches of a large tree. Northern Pygmy-Owls, however, are frequently active during the day.

Despite being one of the smallest owls in North America, the Northern Pygmy-Owl has the reputation of being a bold and aggressive hunter. For its size it may well be the fiercest avian predator in the woods. About the size of a robin, the Northern Pygmy-Owl has been known to take mammals as large as rats, and birds as large as flickers. A flicker is 30-35 centimetres in length; a Northern Pygmy-Owl a mere 15-20 centimetres! More usual prey items would include small birds, small mammals and large insects. The ability to take moving targets, such as birds, is not common amongst owls. Most rely on stealth, and a silent approach, and must strike their quarry before being detected. Northern Pygmy-Owls, however, have enough agility to change direction in flight and capture small birds as they fly from a perch. Tail feathers, acting much like a rudder, are instrumental in changing the direction of flight. The Northern Pygmy-Owl is one of only two B.C. owl species to have tail feathers that extend beyond the wing tips. All other species have very short tail feathers greatly limiting their abilities to zig and zag in response to movements of their intended meal. The Northern Saw-whet Owl has the characteristic short tail of most owls and probably would not have much luck with flying targets. But since they are nocturnal, they don’t encounter many small birds anyway.

Like most predators, Northern Pygmy-Owls will recognize that certain locations are frequented by prey more often than others. These locations may then be “staked out.” Back yards that have bird feeders sometimes become prime hunting spots. A couple of years ago my wife was standing at the living room window watching a Downy Woodpecker on the suet feeder. As she watched, a Pygmy-Owl streaked in and hit the woodpecker with outstretched talons. It dropped to the snow below, where it rested for a moment before flying off with its meal. Does this mean that back yard feeders are putting small bird populations at risk? Not necessarily; the owl is going to eat anyway. While you may be making it a bit easier for him, it is unlikely he will eat more as a result. In fact, it has been suggested that he may actually eat less! Food is energy; the more energy expended, the more food required. By making prey easier to obtain, less energy is expended in obtaining that food, and therefore, less food is required!


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