Elf Owl - Micrathene whitneyi
Calls - Micrathene whitneyi
The first published report of the Elf Owl was by James Graham Cooper in 1861."whitneyi" is a Latinised word formed from the last name of Josiah Dwight
Whitney (1819-1896), a prominent American geologist and the founder of the Harvard School
of Mining in 1868. The elf owl was first known as Whitney's owl. Other Names It has also
been known as are Texas Elf Owl, Whitney's Elf Owl, and
Dwarf Owl. In Mexico, it is called "enano".
[For help with terms used in the description, see parts of an owl. For general characteristics common to most owl species, see owl physiology.]
Description: The Elf Owl is a tiny, short-tailed,
owl of the arid southwestern United States and Mexico. They have round heads with no ear tufts. Plumage is
brownish-grey overall, and is washed with white on the belly and cinnamon on the face.
Cinnamon or buffy spots dot the forehead and wings. An irregular white stripe runs down
the scapular feathers, with irregular white spots running along the outer edge of the
folded wings. A broken white collar runs along the lower nape. Wings are relatively long,
and the short tail is barred with 3 to 5 horizontal pale stripes. Feet and legs appear
naked but are sparsely covered with bristly feathers. Eyes are pale yellow and are
highlighted by thin white "eyebrows". The bill is grey with a horn-coloured tip.
Juveniles are similar to adults but the crown is a uniform brown-grey without spots and
the face greyer than adults without ruddy flecks.
Size: Length 13-14cm. Wing length 99-115mm. Weight males 36-44g, females 41-48g.
Habits: A nocturnal bird. They sit fairly erect and
have a knock-kneed stance. Flight is somewhat bat-like, but not as erratic. When danger approaches,
an Elf Owl straightens its body, covers its lighter underparts with one wing, then turns
its head and peers over the bent wing with the top of its eyes. They are not very
aggressive, preferring to fly away rather than fight.
Voice: Elf Owls have many distinct vocalisations. The
primary advertising call of the male is a high-pitched yip, "whi-whi-whi-whi-whi".
Five to 20 notes are given during each sequence and calling can be almost continuous
through the night. Calling is most intense during early evening and near dawn, on moonlit
spring nights. A shorter version of this song attracts females to potential nest sites.
Mated pairs may also duet, but the female's song is softer and shorter. The female emits a
short "peeu" note to help the male locate her. The male can give a short flight
song "CHU-ur-ur-ur", when he leaves a cavity that he has been
"showing" to his mate. When disturbed both sexes give a sharp "cheeur", which is often repeated. Nestlings give a repetitive rasping call when hungry.
Hunting & Food: Elf Owls hunt small, weak prey because their
relatively weak feet and talons. Virtually all prey are arthropods - mainly insects and
scorpions, although they likely take the odd mouse or small bird also. There have been a
few rare records of small lizards and small snakes being taken. Other common foods include
grasshoppers, locusts, mantids, fly larvae, caterpillars, centipedes, and cicadas.
Most prey is captured in flight as Elf Owls are very manoeuvrable in flight. They hunt
mainly by flying out from perches on trees, shrubs, or cacti to hawk flying insects or by
flying over open ground. They often hover over insect prey, causing the insects to take
flight, then capture them in mid air. They also pluck insects from tree branches or the
ground without taking off, and forage by walking on the ground. Elf Owls are occasionally
attracted to campfires or other bright lights in their quest for flying insects.
Prey are carried to a nearby perch, where they are torn apart before being eaten.
Pellets are tiny, dry and loosely formed. They contain mainly insect body parts and
tend to disintegrate soon after ejection.
Breeding: Around April, Males attract females to potential nest
sites by calling from a cavity, then flying out while singing, as she approaches. On
moonlit nights calling occurs continuously all night. The female selects the nest cavity
and begins to roost in it prior to laying eggs to prevent occupation by other hole-nesting
birds. Elf Owls are entirely dependent on woodpecker cavities for nest sites, both in
cacti and deciduous trees, so there is some competition with nesting woodpeckers over
cavities. Northern Flickers and Gila Woodpeckers in saguaro cacti, and Acorn
Woodpeckers in woodlands, provide most of the cavities used for nesting. Cavity entrances
range from 3 to 10 metres (10 to 33 feet) above ground.
In April or May, 1 to 5 white eggs (average 3) are laid at intervals of 1 to 3 days.
Incubation commences after the second egg is laid and lasts at least 2 weeks (up to 24
days according to some sources). Unlike other owls, the female sometimes hunts at dusk
during incubation, leaving her mate to incubate the eggs in her absence.
Nestlings are fed by the female as she passes on food brought to her by the male. During
peak hunting periods, the male may bring food to the nest as often as once per minute.
Young fledge after 28 to 33 days. Elf Owls are single-brooded, and their breeding success
is the highest of any reported for North American Owls (70% of all eggs laid result in
fledged young). This high rate of success is due to the difficulty that mammalian
predators have in reaching nests, especially those in cacti.
Territories during the breeding season are very small compared to other small owls.
Nesting owls confine themselves to an area between only 20 and 70 metres (65 and 230 feet)
from the nest. Breeding densities are very high for owls, as many as 4.6 pairs/square
kilometre (11 pairs/square mile).
Mortality: Captive Elf Owls have lived for more than 5
years. They have few enemies because there are few larger Owls that occur in the same
habitat. Mammalian predators have difficulty in reaching nests,
especially those in cacti.
Habitat: The Elf Owl inhabits arid deserts overgrown with saguaro cacti,
thorn scrub, and mesquite or deciduous riparian woodlands and adjacent tablelands from 600
to 2,200 meters (2,000 to 7,200 feet) elevation. They are most abundant in deserts
dominated by giant saguaro but are also found in most woody habitats within their range
(except for pure stands of pine). They are found in ravines, canyons, plateaus, and on
Distribution: From Southwest USA to Central
Mexico, Baja California and Socorro Island. Northern populations winter in Central Mexico
and on the Pacific slope north to Sinaloa.
Distribution of the Elf Owl Micrathene whitneyi
Status: Locally not rare.
Original Description: Cooper, James Graham. 1861. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences (Proc. Cal. Acad. Sci.; Series 1) 2: p 118.
M. w. whitneyi,
M. w. idonea,
M. w. graysoni,
M. w. sanfordi
Campbell, Wayne. 1994. "Know Your Owls (CD-ROM)". Axia Wildlife
Page compiled by Deane P. Lewis. Page last updated 2012-08-13
OwlPages.com Owl Species ID: 210.010.000