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home : columns : columns October 13, 2015

3/4/2014 4:44:00 PM
Pygmy owls, the mighty killers
The diurnal northern pygmy owl. photo by Jim Cornelius
+ click to enlarge
The diurnal northern pygmy owl. photo by Jim Cornelius

By Jim Anderson

Pygmy owls can kill anything the size of a pigeon, and eat it - right then and there.

When a pygmy owl shows up in my yard, even the robins run for cover, and you can't find a junco, or finch for love-nor-money; even the chickadees - who thumb their noses at a bird hawk- run for cover.

Nothing seems to frighten a pygmy owl. Last fall when we were cutting wood out on the other side of Camp Sherman, I heard a pygmy yelling at my power saw to shut up! Every time I'd shut down the saw, the pygmy would start scolding me. And do you think we could find him? Not on your life.

In winter you can spot a pygmy owl every time while driving down the highway. If you see a "robin" without a tail perched in the top of a tree, you can bet it's a pygmy owl. That's the best field mark for sighting one, winter or summer; the tail is so short it's almost like it isn't there.

One of best pygmy sightings I've enjoyed was on top of McKenzie Pass on the way to Eugene. I almost ran over the little squirt as it was dragging the corpse of a red squirrel (chickaree) across the road. I swerved and stopped, and all the little owl did was cuss me out. But before I could grab my camera from the back seat he'd made it to the other side of the road and hid himself and his squirrel away in some grass.

These little guys and gals range from the Northwest Territory all the way to Central America. So the ones we see here in winter, perched in the tops of juniper or pine trees, are probably down from Canada or the Northwest Territories. In between the winter range and summer range there are also resident pygmy owls who - like resident osprey from California to Florida - don't even recognize the migrants as they fly by.

Because of their wide distribution, there are 10 pygmy owl subspecies recognized by the bird community hair-splitters.

Although pygmy owls are right at home in abandoned woodpecker cavities, they will use a nesting box if it's placed in the right habitat. (God help a tiny Downey woodpecker if it ever tries to take a nesting cavity away from a pygmy owl!)

By in large, the best place to place a nesting box is in deep forest close to a steam, like along some the forested regions of Whychus Creek.

The best material to make a nesting box from is 15/32 4/5 ply rated CD Western Sheathing Board, and please don't deviate from the nesting box plans. The box must be cleaned at least semiannually, and if you tell me where it is, we'll band the youngsters.

Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Article comment by: Bill Birnbaum

Hi, Jim Anderson...

Hi, Jim, Thanks so much for following up on my suggestion and doing a nice article on the Pigmy Owl. Much appreciated. And I especially like the tip about looking for "a robin with no tail."


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