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Small Packages: Meet the northern pygmy owl, our tiny, feathered giant killer 

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The photos above give new meaning to the phrase: "He has eyes in the back of his head."

That's a typical (life-sized) view of the northern pygmy owl, Glaucidium gnoma, smallest of the Oregon owls, but a giant-killer, in spite of its size. It is not uncommon to witness this robin-sized owl go after - and successfully kill - starlings, rodents of all sizes (except a marmot or beaver) and even mountain and Valley Quail, the latter of which is almost twice the size of the tiny owl.

Driving from Sisters to Eugene over McKenzie Pass one summer a few years back, I came round a corner just below Scott Lake and almost ran over a pygmy owl dragging a pine squirrel across the road. I did a fancy dance with my Chevy S-10 and got stopped just in time to see the little owl vanish into the shrubbery alongside the road, still dragging the dead squirrel.

At first I thought the owl was hauling off a road kill, but when I went back to investigate the spot where it had crossed the road, I couldn't for the life of me see any sign that the squirrel had been hit by a motor vehicle. Knowing the reputation of the pygmy owl, it wasn't difficult for me to accept the fact that the owl had done its own killing.

These little guys do most of their hunting in daylight hours and stay hidden away at night. That demonstrates "good thinking" on their part, as I'm sure they wouldn't last long with a great horned owl prowling around. But then again, who knows?

This time of year is when pygmies are most often observed around Central Oregon. While driving down the road, ask your passengers to keep an eye on the tops of junipers and other trees. If you see what appears to be a "fat robin with no tail" perched in the top of a tree, there's a better than 50/50 chance it's a northern pygmy owl.

If it is what you think it is, pull over in a safe place, take out that old recorder you may have in your glove box, or some other wooden wind instrument and begin a series of short "toots." If you have the right pitch and spacing between toots, get ready to duck (a naturalist's exaggeration, but he may come close). Even though the owl can't recognize its competitor, the owl can hear it, and he's not going to pass up the opportunity to chase him out of his territory - come hell or high water.

A couple of weeks ago, while checking a golden eagle nest with my binoculars from the road in a canyon between Sisters and Redmond, my son, Caleb - who was following in his car with his family - called me on my cell phone and exclaiming, "Dad! Come back here, there's a northern pygmy owl perched in a dead juniper right alongside the road." That's the owl in the photos above.

These little owls like to find an abandon woodpecker cavity near a stream in the dense forest and take it over for a place to raise their babies. In other cases, they may kick the guys out who are living there, and anyone else just thinking of moving in.

In addition to eating quail and pine squirrels, the pygmy owl can get off with insects of all kinds, small rodents (such as sage and meadow voles, golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, white-footed mice), and all kinds of birds, from robins to chickadees, and lizards and snakes. Because they are common from Alaska to Yucatan, there probably will never be a shortage of pygmy owls, as long as the woodpeckers and dead trees hold out.

As it is with all birds - except the house sparrow and European starling - the tiny pygmy owl is protected by both state and federal laws. It is therefore unlawful to capture, or have one in captivity without the necessary permits. As long as you do nothing to endanger the welfare of the owls, you can't help but enjoy their pugnacious nature.


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