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Elf Owl Biology
A Reference for North and Central American Owls

Elf Owl - Micrathene whitneyi

Breeding Range Map  
Other Common Names: Whitney's Elf Owl (whitneyi); Sanford's Elf Owl (sanfordi); Texas Elf Owl (idonea).

Subspecies: There are four recognized races of Elf Owl, two of which that have ranges that cross into North America. The other two races are restricted to the tip of Baja California and the small island Socorro, south-west from the tip of Baja California.
M. w. idonea is resident in southern Texas. It ranges from the southern tip of Texas to Central Mexico (Puebla to Guanajuato).
M. w. whitneyi breeds in the S. W. USA but migrates south into Mexico for the winter. It is found from S. E. California (decreasing in frequency) and the extreme south of Nevada across C. Arizona, S. W. New Mexico, and W. Texas.
M. w. sanfordi is resident on the southern end of Baja California.
M. w. graysoni
is found only on the island Socorro, south-west from the tip of Baja California.

Measurements & Weights:
Wingspan:  13 1/2 - 16 1/2 in.
Length:                 5 - 5 3/4 in.
Tail:                      1.8 - 2.1 in.
Average Weight:        1 1/2 oz.

Description: The Elf Owl is the smallest owl in the world. The back side is rusty-brown to orangey-brown with irregular small light rusty to orangey spotting. The light spotting becomes more distinct and lighter on the crown and the head and may even become whitish. The tips of the scapulars are white giving the owl an irregular line of white down the upper backside. Some of the primary and secondary flight feathers have white tips giving the bird some white spots also on the backside. The underside has a base of white with orangey-brown streaks. The overall colors of the owl seem to be more brownish on the backside and more orangey on the head and streaking on the front side (chest, flanks, and belly). White eyebrows and some white in the outer facial disk which is mostly orangey in color. The bill is Grayish-horn colored with a pale yellow tip and the iris are yellow. The tail has orange and brown streaks. Overall the Arizona Elf Owls, I have seen, have no sharp, crisp markings and have had much more orange and brown color than gray and rust colors as written in most of the field guides. Readily distinguished from the Pygmy-Owls by its nocturnal activity (the Pygmy owls being diurnal) and from the Flammulated Owl by its yellow iris (the Flammulated Owl having brown or black iris). Distinguished from all owls by its distinctive small size.

Young: The juveniles have a deep brown head and face, lacks orangey-brown or rust color. The under parts are whitish with light wash of buffy-brown and narrowly barred with darker brown. Upper parts similar to adult.

Habitat: The classic image of an Elf Owl looking out of a hole in a Saguaro cactus may be overemphasized. They are abundant in the Saguaro deserts but also are abundant into the mountains reaching elevations of up to about 6000 ft. They can be found in dense mesquite, dry oak woodlands, wooded canyons, sycamores, and probably any other tree within its elevation range. They may be seen in dense scrub to woodpecker holes in cottonwoods or telephone poles. Classically they are in high desert, foothills, and low in the mountains, and often in dryer habitats.

Food and Feeding: The Elf Owl's diet consists mainly of spiders, insects, and scorpions (if fed to the young, the stinger is first removed). Their diet is exclusively arthropods, which also includes beetles, moths, grasshoppers, and crickets. The Elf Owl does not have the typical feather structure enabling silent flight, as it is probably not necessary for their prey. They feed mostly at dawn and dusk (mainly crepuscular feeders) and a lack of eye shine suggests they do not have excellent night vision although they are basically nocturnal and will not be found out during the day.

Breeding: The Elf Owl nests exclusively in woodpecker holes found in Saguaro cacti, sycamores, pines, walnuts, and even telephone poles (determined by availability of holes in the habitat). Breeding season in North America is normally May and June (March through August in Mexico). 1 - 5 eggs may be laid but 3 are most common. The incubation period is 21 - 24 days. The young can capture food as soon as they can fly (27-28 days of age) and fledge shortly thereafter (28 - 33 days of age).

Movements: The Elf Owl is one of the two extremely migratory owls in North America, the other being the Flammulated Owl. These are both highly insectivorous and nocturnal species, which may account for the movements south in the winter (no nocturnal insect activity in this range because of cold winter nights). The Elf Owls of Texas are reportedly at least partially resident although February searches may fail to produce any birds. Arizona Elf Owls generally arrive in March and leave in September for their Mexico wintering grounds.

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