Elf Owl

Micrathene whitneyi

Hayford Pierce
  • Owls
  • 190,000

A tiny, sparrow-sized owl, the Elf Owl is a resident of deserts, dry shublands, riparian woodlands, and open pine-oak forests in Mexico and southern Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. Its calls are a characteristic nighttime sound of the desert southwest. The species has suffered from loss and degradation of habitat, much of which has been converted to agriculture, and in some parts of its U.S. range it has become quite rare.

One of the tiniest owls (the size of a sparrow) and without ear-tufts, the Elf Owl is often identified by its poodle-like yapping song. It has a brownish-gray back with thick rufous streaks on its breast and a white stripe above the wing. Its eyes are yellow.

Distribution and Population Trends
Breeds from southern Arizona, extreme southeastern California, New Mexico, and west Texas extending southward into northern Mexico. Northern populations migrate south to central Mexico in winter. Declining in California where, in its limited range, it is state-listed as endangered. In fact, no birds were detected in California on surveys conducted in 1999. Like most owls, little information is available about its overall population status.

A species of riparian woodlands, open pine-oak forests, deserts and dry brushland of the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico. Feeds exclusively on insects and other arthropods. Like Flammulated Owl, Elf Owl often hover-gleans in search of insects. During the breeding season, males sing constantly through the night. Nest is in an old woodpecker cavity usually in sycamores or saguaro cacti. Clutch size is usually three, sometimes 2 - 4.

Most important threat is habitat loss both of its riparian forest habitat and desert-scrub habitats. Riparian habitats are threatened throughout the Western U.S. and within this species' range by changes in hydrology caused by water diversion for drinking water and agriculture, invasion of non-native plants (especially Salt Cedar), conversion of habitat for agriculture, and degradation of habitat on unfenced streams by cattle. Desert and dry scrub habitats throughout the species' range have been cleared for agriculture and, especially in Arizona, for housing developments.

Reintroduction programs to southern California have been met with mixed success. Riparian habitat restoration in Arizona and New Mexico and elsewhere is underway, but effects of these projects will not be known until trees are mature enough to support cavity excavation by woodpeckers. Until then, research is being conducted to determine the effectiveness of nest-box use by these owls. A study in Texas found that Elf Owls occupied 22% of 80 nest boxes.

What Can You Do?
Audubon's Important Bird Area program is a vital tool for the conservation of Elf Owls as well as other species. To learn more about the Important Bird Area programs in states with breeding populations of Elf Owl, and how you can help, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/

Support local land trusts, government agencies, and other organizations working to preserve Elf Owls habitat in your area. Contact your state Important Bird Areas coordinator (http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/state_coords.html) to find out if there are sites in your area important for Elf Owls that need increased protection.

CIPAMEX, Audubon's BirdLife International partner in Mexico, has an Important Bird Areas program that is working to protect wintering habitat for Elf Owls and many other species. To learn more about Mexico's Important Bird Areas program and how you can help visit:

Information on where Elf Owls occur and in what numbers is vital to conserving the species. Help in monitoring this and other species by reporting your sightings to eBird. A project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is the world's first comprehensive on-line bird monitoring program: http://www.audubon.org/bird/ebird/index.html.

U.S. National Wildlife Refuges provide essential habitat for Elf Owls, and a great number of other species throughout the U.S. and its territories. Unfortunately, the refuge system is often under-funded during the U.S. government's budgeting process. To learn more about how you can help gain much needed funding for U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, visit: http://www.audubon.org/campaign/refuge_report/

Henry, S. G. and Gehlbach, F. R. 1999. Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi). In The Birds of North America, No. 413 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D. C.

Kaufman, K. Lives of North American Birds. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.

Konig, C., F. Weick, and J. Becking. 1999. Owls A Guide to the Owls of the World. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Palis, J., M. Koenen, and D.W. Mehlman. 1999. Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi): Species Management Abstract. The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA.

Sibley, David A. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.