Elf Owl

Micrathene Whitneyi

Last updated: November 15, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit suchitra poungkoson/Shutterstock.com

The elf owl is the smallest and lightest owl in the world

Elf Owl Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Strigiformes
Family
Strigidae
Genus
Micrathene
Scientific Name
Micrathene Whitneyi

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Elf Owl Conservation Status

Elf Owl Locations

Elf Owl Locations

Elf Owl Facts

Prey
moths, crickets, beetles, grasshoppers, katydids, cicadas, and more
Main Prey
Insects
Name Of Young
Owlet
Group Behavior
  • Social
Fun Fact
The elf owl is the smallest and lightest owl in the world
Estimated Population Size
72,000
Biggest Threat
Habitat loss
Most Distinctive Feature
Petite size
Distinctive Feature
short tails, small feet
Wingspan
10.5 inches
Incubation Period
24 days
Age Of Fledgling
27 to 28 days
Habitat
Foothill canyons and saguaros deserts
Predators
bigger owls, coyotes, tree-dwelling snakes, jays, hawks, bobcats, and ringtail cats.
Diet
Carnivore
Lifestyle
  • Nocturnal
Type
Bird
Common Name
Elf owl
Number Of Species
4
Location
North America
Average Clutch Size
1
Nesting Location
Holes in trees or cacti
Migratory
1

Elf Owl Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Black
  • White
Skin Type
Feathers
Lifespan
up to 10 years
Weight
1.4 ounces
Length
4.9 to 5.7 inches

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“The world’s smallest and lightest owl.”

Summary

The elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi) lives in North America in the Southwestern United States and throughout most of Mexico. It inhabits lowland areas with plenty of cover and nesting cavities, primarily foothill canyons and saguaros deserts. They spend their days perched on low branches waiting for their prey and are most active during dawn and dusk. Listen for their high-pitched chuckles as they chat with one another in the evenings. Learn everything there is to know about the world’s smallest owl, including what it eats, how it behaves, and what threatens it.

5 Amazing Elf Owl Facts

  • The elf owl is the smallest and lightest owl in the world, weighing only 1.4 ounces on average.
  • They are not picky about their habitats as long as it’s in a lowland area with some vegetation and nesting areas.
  • These birds are social, often forming groups for protection and migration.
  • Some choose to mate for life, while others are monogamous during one breeding season.
  • Their population is declining due to habitat destruction.

Where to Find the Elf Owl

Elf owls live in North America in the United States and Mexico. They breed in the Southwestern part of the US and Northern Mexico during spring and summer and migrate to Southern Mexico during the winter. There are also year-round residents in Southern Baja, California, and a few other spots in Mexico. This species lives in diverse habitats, including saguaros cactus deserts or foothill canyons around sycamores or large oaks. They are not picky about their United States environment and will inhabit any lowland area with cover and nesting cavities.

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Elf Owl Nest

Their nesting sites are old woodpecker holes in trees or cacti.

Scientific Name

The elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi) is from the Strigiformes order, which makes up the owl species. Its Strigidae family contains the true owls and its genus, Micrathene, only includes the elf owl. The specific name, Whitneyi, was chosen to honor the geologist Josiah Whitney.  There are four recognized subspecies of the elf owl.

Size, Appearance, & Behavior

The elf owl is the world’s smallest and lightest owl, measuring 4.9 to 5.7 inches long and weighing 1.4 ounces, with a 10.5-inch wingspan. This compact owl has a short tail, small feet, and relatively large heads which lack ear tufts. They also have long legs that appear bow-legged. Their coloring is a mottling of brown, gray, rufous, and white, with a black outlined facial disk.


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These owls are most active during dusk and dawn and can often be heard calling to each other in high-pitched chuckles. They are nocturnal and forage for food under cover of darkness. They also migrate at night in small family groups. This species is socially monogamous and joins other elf owls for protection. They roost quietly in their secluded tree cavities during the day. 

Migration Pattern and Timing

Elf owls are residents to short-distance migrants. Populations in Baja, California, and other parts of Mexico live year-round in their environments. Those that breed in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico will migrate into Southern Mexico for the winter.

Diet

Elf owls are carnivores who primarily hunt from low perches.

What Does the Elf Owl Eat?

They eat moths, crickets, beetles, grasshoppers, katydids, cicadas, scorpions, spiders, flies, wasps, bees, and centipedes. Occasionally, they consume larger prey like lizards, snakes, and rodents. You often find them hunting from low perches and taking off to catch flying insects mid-air. They sometimes chase prey on foot and snatch them from the ground. They may be small, but they are agile hunters with sharp bills and talons.

Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status

The IUCN lists the elf owl as LC or “least concern.” Due to its very large range and population, this species does not meet the thresholds for “threatened” status. However, their population trend is decreasing. But it doesn’t appear to be declining at a rapid pace. Its most significant threat is habitat loss. Their riparian forest and desert scrub environments are dwindling due to the agricultural industry and urbanization.

What Eats the Elf Owl?

Elf owl predators include bigger owls, coyotes, tree-dwelling snakes, jays, hawks, bobcats, and ringtail cats. They defend themselves by nesting in tree cavities, using their beaks and talons, and flying away. Some mating pairs will form small groups to mob predators.

Reproduction, Young, and Molting

Elf owls will choose to be monogamous during one breeding season, or they may mate for life. Males sing loudly at night to attract females. During courtship, males sing inside a potential nest and feed the females. Females lay one to five, but typically three, white eggs. She incubates them for 24 days while the male brings her food. The young fledge the nest 27 to 28 days after hatching, but the parents care for them for several more days. Elf owls live three to six years in the wild but can survive up to ten in captivity.

Population

The global elf owl population is estimated to number 72,000 mature individuals. Their population is in a slow decline due to ongoing habitat destruction. Their numbers show no signs of extreme fluctuations or fragmentations.

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About the Author

Niccoy is a professional writer and content creator focusing on nature, wildlife, food, and travel. She graduated Kappa Beta Delta from Florida State College with a business degree before realizing writing was her true passion. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and enjoys hiking, reading, and cooking!

Elf Owl FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Where does the elf owl live?

Elf owls live in North America in the United States and Mexico.

How small is the elf owl?

The elf owl is the world’s smallest and lightest owl, measuring 4.9 to 5.7 inches long and weighing 1.4 ounces, with a 10.5-inch wingspan.

Are elf owls nocturnal?

These owls are most active during dusk and dawn and can often be heard calling to each other in high-pitched chuckles. They are nocturnal and forage for food under cover of darkness

Do elf owls migrate?

Elf owls are residents to short-distance migrants. They breed in the Southwestern part of the US and Northern Mexico during spring and summer and migrate to Southern Mexico during the winter. 

What do elf owls eat?

They eat moths, crickets, beetles, grasshoppers, katydids, cicadas, scorpions, spiders, flies, wasps, bees, and centipedes. Occasionally, they consume larger prey like lizards, snakes, and rodents.

What threatens the elf owl?

Its most significant threat is habitat loss. Their riparian forest and desert scrub environments are dwindling due to the agricultural industry and urbanization.

How long do elf owls live?

 Elf owls live three to six years in the wild but can survive up to ten in captivity.

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Sources
  1. Red List / BirdLife International, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22689325/168847632
  2. Pro Quest/ National Forum / Glenna Holloway, Available here: https://www.proquest.com/openview/3968fd20789924721c5a9c39964beff2/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=1820941
  3. Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan no. 136 / J. David Ligon, Available here: https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/56380/MP136.pdf?sequence=1
  4. JSTOR / The Condor Vol. 6, No. 2 / Herbert Brown, Available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1361557#metadata_info_tab_contents

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