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What is an Elf Owl?

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  • Written By: Henry Gaudet
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2016
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The elf owl, or micrathene whitneyi, is the world's smallest species of owl. They take their Latin name from Josiah Dwight Whitney, a 19th century geologist in the United States. Other names for the elf owl include the dwarf owl, Whitney’s owl, Whitney’s elf owl and the Texas elf owl. In Mexico, it is called enano.

A typical adult elf owl is measures about 5 inches (13 cm) long. Weighing about 1 to 1.5 ounces (30 to 40 grams), it is roughly the size of a sparrow. A wingspan of about 9 inches (23 cm) is typical.

Elf owls are grayish brown, dappled with brown and white spots. Unlike many other species of owl, the elf owl’s round head does not have ear tufts. It does, however, have distinctive white eyebrows over yellow eyes and a small gray beak.

Native to the deserts of the southwest U.S. and Mexico, elf owls often make their homes near stream beds or other water sources. They nest in abandoned woodpecker holes found in sycamores and oaks, but they are best known for nesting in giant saguaro cacti. Owls native to northern regions migrate to Mexico for the winter.

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Males select nesting sites and then attempt to attract a female. Occasionally, there is competition for nests, both with other owls and with the woodpeckers who made the nests. In April or May, the female elf owl lays one to five eggs, which hatch in about three weeks. Within a month, these hatchlings are able to fly and hunt for food themselves.

Lacking the strength of larger owls, elf owls typically hunt arthropods such as spiders and insects. Grasshoppers, moths, scorpions, locusts, centipedes and beetles are common prey. Elf owls only rarely attack larger animals such as mice, birds or lizards.

Like all owls, elf owls are nocturnal and hunt at night. Keen night vision and acute hearing help to make elf owls effective hunters. They are able to fly silently and possess excellent maneuverability in the air. Although they are able to forage on the ground or in a tree, they prefer to snatch up prey while in flight.

When faced with larger predators, the elf owl usually will attempt to flee. By nesting in tall trees and cacti, they are able to avoid most ground-based predators such as snakes, coyotes and bobcats. When an elf owl is captured, it often will “play dead” until the attacker loses interest.

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anon260558
Post 6

I believe that the Elf owl is actually quite interesting.

orangey03
Post 4

I had never seen an elf owl until my dog caught one. He noticed that something was moving in a hole in the tree trunk, so he stood up on it until the owl flew out, and he caught it in his mouth.

I screamed when I saw it, because it was limp and I thought he had killed it. He did lose interest when it stopped fighting to get away.

Once he walked away from it, I saw it flutter. It stood up slowly and flew onto a high branch of a nearby tree. I understand why they usually live up high. This one made its new home far away from the reach of my dog.

Perdido
Post 3

@lighth0se33 – I'm not sure if this applies to elf owls, but I know that it is illegal to own a regular owl as a pet without a special handler's license in the United States. For this reason, you probably won't be able to find a pet shop that carries them, and I wouldn't recommend going out into the wild and capturing one.

I have read that owls don't like being touched. Your niece couldn't show affection to an owl like she could to a cat or dog.

Also, since they are active at night, I imagine they would make a lot of noise in their cages and make it difficult for your niece to sleep. An elf owl might be cute and interesting, but as a pet, it would only make life difficult.

lighth0se33
Post 2

It's so weird to me to think of a bird with white eyebrows! The fact that it is so tiny makes it even more strange. I would imagine that large white eyebrows overwhelm its face.

Does anyone know if elf owls make good pets? I'm looking for something adorable and unique to give my niece for Christmas, and she loves owls. I know that getting a large owl is not an option, because she is a small girl and that might scare her.

She would probably think an elf owl was the cutest thing she ever saw! It would be a great thing for her to take to school for show and tell, also.

Oceana
Post 1

When I saw the title of this article, I expected to read that an elf owl was maybe half the size of a regular owl. I had no idea that it would be as small as it is!

I think it's crazy that something that teeny can hunt at night. I could barely see an insect on a bright, moonlit evening. I can't imagine this creature being able to spy small insects in the dark.

Nature is truly amazing. An elf owl is just one of the world's oddities that illustrates the vastness of the variety of life here.

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