Elf owl

The Elf owl, belonging to genus Micrathene, is one of the smallest owl species in the world. It is one of two migratory owl species (other being the Flammulated owl) native to North America.

Elf owl

Elf owl


Scientific classification of Elf owl

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Strigiformes

Family: Strigidae

Genus: Micrathene

Species: M. whitneyi

Scientific Name for Elf owl

The scientific name for the Elf owl is Micrathene whitneyi.


Subspecies of Elf owl

The Elf owl has four recognized subspecies. They are –


  • Micrathene whitneyi graysoni
  • Micrathene whitneyi idonea
  • Micrathene whitneyi sanfordi
  • Micrathene whitneyi whitneyi

Physical description of Elf owl

Adult Elf owls tend to be 12 to 14.5 inches in length, and they weigh around 40 grams. Their legs are quite big compared to their overall appearance, and sometimes they appear bow-legged.

Elf owl physical description

Elf owl physical description

A full-grown Elf owl stands 6 inches tall. Their wingspan is 12 inches on average. Their plumage color is light brown, along with dark brown patterns on underpart. Their fluffy feathers give them a blown-up appearance. They have a round head. The color of their eyes is black with yellow outlines. The area above the eyebrow is white. The color of their bill is somewhat yellowish green. At times, they are mistaken for young owls (of other species) by inexperienced observers.

The habitat of Elf owl

This species can be seen in different types of habitats, such as canyons, ravines, and mountain ranges.

Habitat of Elf owl

The habitat of Elf owl

They are comfortable inhabiting any elevation from 1900 to 7000 feet. They are mostly found in hot desert terrains with water around. Some population also prefer to stay in wooded forests, but do not inhabit any place with pine trees.

The geographical range of Elf owl

The Elf owl spends the spring and summer in the United States for breeding. In the US, they are found in places like New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Texas. Winter migration takes them to the south and central Mexico.

Geographical range of Elf owl

The geographical range of Elf owl

They return to the northern parts either in late March or early May. The resident population of this species occurs in places like the Baja peninsula as well as south-central Mexico.

Adaptation of Elf owl

Like all owl species, they have great night vision. They also have a high-quality hearing. Elf owls can catch their prey in total darkness, by using their hearing ability rather than their eyes. Unlike other owl species, Elf owl cannot see in complete darkness. Their feather is designed in such a way that it does not make any noise as they go after their prey.

The behaviour of Elf owl

Elf owls are great when it comes to camouflage itself as a broken tree branch. They mostly stay active during dusk, and before dawn, but hunting mostly takes place during the night. They use both straight and arced flight while hunting. They prefer cacti as their primary shelter.

Reproduction of Elf owl

Mating season starts in late March or May. Breeding territories are established by males. As mating season approaches, males start to sing persistently during a night in order to attract females. This species is monogamous, and both male and female defend their territory from intruders. Their breeding nest mostly tend to be old woodpecker cavities in hardwood trees or giant cactus holes. They do not prefer vegetation as a nesting layer; instead, they prefer the bare cavity. Females lay 2 – 4 eggs. The eggs are oval or round in shape; and are white in color. Incubation is done by female only, and this process lasts for 21 to 24 days. The male brings food to the breeding nest during the first few weeks for the female and the young ones. After that, a female also takes part in hunting. The young ones fledge at around 9 – 10 weeks.

Diet of Elf owl

The diet of this species consists of various types of foods, with scorpions and insects making most of it.

Elf owl diet

Elf owl diet

They also feed on lizards, small bats, crickets, moths, beetles, and centipedes.

Life expectancy of Elf owl

The lifespan of this species is around 3 – 6 years. However, in captivity, they may live as long as ten years.

Vocalization of Elf owl

Their call sounds like a high pitched chickle or whinny, similar to squeaks, and whistles. They can be heard calling other individuals of its species after sunset.

Predators of Elf owl

The predators of Elf owl include bobcats, coyotes, snakes, ringtail, jays, hawks as well as other large owls.


Conservation Status of Elf owl

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has kept this species in the ‘Least Concern’ category.

Interesting Facts about Elf owl

  • Unlike other owl species, Elf owl does not remove the sting of the scorpion before eating it.
  • Kathryn Lasky’s book series Guardians of Ga’Hoole has a fictional Elf owl character named Gylfie.
  • Habitat loss is a huge threat to this species. In Texas and California, their numbers are decreasing.
  • Micrathene whitneyi graysoni (the Socorro elf owl) found in Socorro Island became extinct in the twentieth century, possibly around 1970.

Elf owl Video

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