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Northern Pygmy Owls 

The Mighty Killers

The photographs give you some idea of why Northern Pygmy Owls (NOPO) are common and never miss anything throughout their range; that is, they are always looking at you! Another reason is 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. I can't find a junco, or finch for love-nor-money. Even the chickadees—who thumb their noses at a bird hawk, like a Cooper's or Sharp-shinned—run for cover.

Kevin Smith, a good pal, fellow birder and whale of a fine photographer, sent me this email the other day: "One of the birders here at Crooked River Ranch called me and said he had an 'elf owl' at his home." Now, I knew we don't have any of those in Central Oregon, so I grabbed my camera and ran right over (knowing it probably was a Pygmy Owl).

"He came to the door and proclaimed, 'Your #*$%() owl killed MY Goldfinch!!'" I backed off a bit and said, 'WHAT?' And he said, 'Your 'blankety-blank owl killed MY Goldfinch!!' again. He then proceeded to take me out to the back porch and show me a headless Lesser Goldfinch. Then pointed to the perpetrator, a beautiful fierce, little Pygmy Owl sitting in a small tree.

Then he said, "SO, I took it away from him!"

"You did WHAT," was my response.

Again he said, "So, I took it away from him!"

I tried to calm him down and explained that Pigmy Owls eat small birds as well as anything else they think they can conquer. I then told him he should give the finch back to the owl; after all it was quite dead at this point and was of no value to him. It took while, but he finally agreed.

I took the finch and tossed it toward the owl, who by this time was sitting on the ground right in front of me. BONK! It hit it right on the owl's beak! A blink and a look about and quick as a wink the finch was in the talons of the owl who flew off to finish its feast.

Nothing seems to frighten a pygmy owl. Last fall when I was cutting wood with some friends 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, it is the other way around. 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 juniper, 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.

The best pygmy sighting I've enjoyed—other than the one that was in some brush on the shoulder of Buckhorn Rd, between Sisters and Redmond—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 backseat he'd made it to the other side of the road and hid himself and his squirrel away in some grass and other vegetation.

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 and the attention they get, there are several pygmy owl subspecies recognized by the ornithological community:

Pacific Pygmy Owl - Central British Columbia to SW US, and N. Mexico.

Guatemalan Pygmy Owl - Mountains of southern Mexico to Guatemala and Honduras.

Mountain Pygmy Owl - SE Arizona to highlands of Mexico

Coastal Pygmy Owl - coniferous forests of SW Alaska to N California.

Cape Pygmy Owl - Mountains of S. Baja California

Rocky Mountains Pygmy Owl -- Rocky Mountains, west central US.

Vancouver Pygmy Owl - Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Although NGPOs 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 and large, the best place to place a NOPO nesting box is in deep forest close to a steam, like along some of the forested regions of upper Tumalo Creek (if the City of Bend can restrain from piping it.) The best material to make a nesting box from is 15/32 4/5 ply rated CD Western Sheathing Board. For plans to build one, check out the Source online, and please note the box must be cleaned at least semiannually, and if you tell me where it is, we'll band the youngsters.

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