The Owl Pages

Boreal Owl ~ Aegolius funereus


The Boreal or Tengmalm's Owl is a small owl with no ear-tufts. The species name funereus comes from the Latin word for funeral. In North America it is known as the Boreal Owl, named after the Greek god Boreas. In other parts of the world it is known as Tengmalm's Owl, after Swedish naturalist Peter Gustaf Tengmalm.

Photo Gallery (12 pictures)

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Sound Gallery

Typical call - Burgundy, France. © Gérard Olivier.


Description: Colouration varies widely between individuals, with some having reddish-brown hues, while others are more greyish.
The facial disc is whitish, surrounded by a dark rim with small white spots. There is a small dark portion between the eyes and the base of the bill. Eyes are pale to bright yellow. The cere and bill are yellowish horn.
Upper parts are dark brown with bold white spotting. Underparts are off-white, with broad streaks of darkish brown, denser on the breast and trailing off at the lower belly.
The tail is short and brown, with 4-5 white cross-bars. The legs and feet are covered with white feathers. Claws are darkish horn to blackish brown, and have very sharp blackish tips.

Size: Length 20-30cm. Wing length 154-192mm. Tail length 75-114mm. Weight 90-194g. Females are larger and heavier than males.

Habits: A nocturnal Owl, also unsociable. Adult males are territorial, however, territories are small. Males will sing intensively only as long as they are unmated. Flight is straight and noiseless, with soft wingbeats.

Voice: The most common call is the territorial song of the male, which varies widely from individual to individual. It is a series of "Poop" notes followed by a 3-4 second break, then another series. The individual variation is in the number of notes and the pitch and speed at which the notes are uttered.
When the female approaches the singing male, the notes become more "stuttering". This usually leads into a trill of up to 350 rapid notes, which is sung from potential nest sites to show the female.
The male will emit a low "Wood" or "Wood-whoohd" to contact a breeding female. To show aggression he can deliver a whip-like "zjuck" sound.
The female's call is infrequently heard, and similar to the male's, but fainter, higher pitched and not as clear. An aggressive female may utter a sharp "Jack" as well as hoarse "oohwack" and croaking sounds "kraihk, kwahk".
When the male announces his arrival with trills or "wood" calls, the female will respond from the nest hole with a high pitched "seeh", sometimes with a verse of suppressed song. Her contact call is a mewing, hoarse "zuihd".

Hunting & Food: Boreal Owls usually hunt by perching on low branches or tree trunks. The Owl will scan the ground by moving its head slowly from side to side, listening for movement of potential prey, as they hunt primarily using their excellent, directional hearing. When a victim is located, the Owl will swoop on it from the perch.
Prey Items are mainly small rodents, especially Voles. They also eat lemmings, shrews, mice, and moles. They occasionally take small birds, squirrels, bats, frogs and beetles.
Pellets are thick, grey and about 22x12mm and found mostly around the daytime roost.

Breeding: The Boreal or Tengmalm's Owl nests mainly in old woodpecker cavities, but may also use natural cavities. They will take readily to artificial nest boxes.

Males begin searching for nest holes in late Winter. Prey items are often deposited into the hole, after which, the male will sing from a perch. If an interested female approaches, the male will fly to the cavity and utters a stuttering or trilling song. The female may then inspect the nest hole, and if she accepts it, will stay. The male brings her food while she is in the hole.
Several days later, the female lays 3-8 white eggs which are laid a day apart. Incubation begins with the first or second egg laid, and lasts 28-29 days. The female does all incubation and the male brings food to the nest. The chicks hatch a day apart, and their eyes open after 10 days. They leave the nest at about 30-32 days, and are looked after by the parents for 4-6 weeks. They are mature at about 9 months.

The Tengmalm's / Boreal Owl is usually single-brooded, but will sometimes try to produce 2 broods. Breeding success is fairly high. Desertion or predation of eggs and young are the primary causes of nest failure. Unlike many other owls, pair bonding is only seasonal.

Mortality: These Owls can live for at least 7-8 years. Incubating females are sometimes killed by Pine Martens. They are also preyed upon by larger raptors, such as other owls and Goshawks.

Habitat: Preferred habitat varies throughout its range but includes mainly old-growth forests with woodpecker cavities for nesting. They inhabit a range of forests from pure coniferous to pure deciduous forests. Southern populations tend to occur in high sub-alpine forests. Hunting habitat includes forest meadows and open forests. When roosting they need dense conifers where they roost 5-6m up.

Distribution: Holarctic distribution roughly following the northern forest belt. Also patchy distribution in southern Europe and the Middle East, and an extension into west central China. In North America, the distribution is generally confined to the forest areas of the Rocky Mountains and the northern coniferous belt. To the east of the Rockies they occur as far south as New Mexico, and to the west they occur in forests from Alaska to Oregon. This bird is partly migratory, especially northern populations, and mostly female and young birds.

Range of Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus)
Range of the Boreal Owl Aegolius funereus

Status: Generally uncommon to rare. Endangered in some areas, locally common in others. Listed as 'Least Concern' by Birdlife International.

Original Description: Linnaeus, Carolis. 1758. Systema Naturae (Syst. Nat.) ed. 10: p. 93.

References: (may contain affiliate links)
BirdLife International. 2020. "IUCN Red List of Threatened Species". IUCN.
Campbell, Wayne. 1994. "Know Your Owls". Axia Wildlife.
del Hoyo, Elliott & Sargatal. 1999. "Handbook of the Birds of the World: Barn Owls to Hummingbirds". Buteo Books.
Johnsgard, Paul A.. 2002. "North American Owls: Biology and Natural History". Smithsonian.
König, Claus & Weick, Friedhelm. 2008. "Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World (Second Edition)". Yale University Press.
König, Weick and Becking. 1999. "Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World". Yale University Press.
Long, Kim. 1998. "Owls: A Wildlife Handbook". Johnson Books.
Mikkola, Heimo. 1983. "Owls of Europe". Buteo Books.
Voous, Karel H.. 1988. "Owls of the Northern Hemisphere". The MIT Press.
Aegolius funereus at Xeno-canto.

See also: Other owls from North America, Europe, The Middle East, Asia, Genus: Aegolius.

Page by Deane Lewis. Last updated 2020-11-01. Copyright Information.