A tiny owl with a big name

  • Illustration of the pygmy-owl

    Evan Cantor
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories.

The cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl, described as "fist-sized" and "no bigger than a muffin," measures seven inches from beak to tail, and is the second smallest owl in North America. Only the elf owl, also native to southern Arizona, is smaller.

Pygmy-owls spend a lot of time in desert oases and desert washes, since these moist habitats are a good place to find food. The owls have been known to eat birds, lizards, insects, small mammals and even frogs.

Like other small owls in the Southwest, the pygmy-owl nests in unlined cavities in trees or large cacti. The many-armed saguaro cactus is a common choice for a small owl's home; it's not unusual to see a tiny owl head peeking out of a hole near the top of a tall saguaro. The nest cavities are naturally formed, or dug out by woodpeckers.

Pygmy-owls typically lay between three and five eggs in late winter and early spring. The eggs hatch in about four weeks, and the young fledge about four weeks after hatching. Fledglings have a 50 percent mortality rate in their first year.

The cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl is one of three subspecies of the ferruginous pygmy-owl, and it's found in southern Arizona, southern Texas, and northwestern Mexico. The two other subspecies live only in Central and South America. There have been about 165 recorded sightings of the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl between 1872 and 1997.