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Pygmy Owl A Surprise At Bird Feeder

December 16, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder


One of the joys of living within easy walking distance of my Missoula office is the opportunity to go home for lunch. I let the dog out, turn on Paul Harvey, and lay out my sandwich fixings while waiting for the coffee and soup to simmer.

We have a bird feeder stuck to the outside of a window near the kitchen table, and I always keep an eye out for any activity there. During an otherwise dreary noon hour in November, my eye caught the silhouette of a sparrow-sized bird on a bare maple limb, overlooking the feeder.

I didn't think much about it, since I don't place high aesthetic value on the numerous house sparrows that frequent the feeder. However, something didn't look quite right, so I looked again, harder this time.

"Where's the head?" I thought to myself.

There seemed to be precious little distinction between the body and the place where the head should be. Certainly, there was nothing that could be called a neck. As I strained harder to see, I could have sworn the head was turning from side to side. But, the elongated profile of a beak never appeared. It looked like a bird head painted on a salt shaker. It was cylindrical at every viewing angle.

Finally, the cobwebs cleared from my birder brain. "Owl!" I exclaimed, out loud.

Tiny owl. Tiny, stupid owl, I added as I passed within a few feet of it on the way back to work.

It didn't take me long to arrive at the desk of Bill Thomas, FWP's information officer for Region 2. "Hey, we've got a pygmy owl in our maple tree at home," I informed him.

"Oh, yeah, I've got video of one attacking a sparrow in my backyard," Bill replied matter-of-factly, abruptly reminding me I had selected the wrong person to try impressing with my skills as a naturalist.

"Yeah, I drove over to the office in my bathrobe to pick up the video camera," he continued. "My wife told me I could be arrested for driving around in public like that, but I got the footage." I conjured up a mental image of Bill in his bathrobe, and had to agree with his wife. But, I kept that opinion to myself.

It had been about 13 years since I last bumped into a pygmy owl, or even thought about one, but lately I can't seem to escape them. On that day back in 1986, I believe, I was counting elk sign along a compass line as part of an elk study near St. Regis when I parted a thicket of fir saplings and came face to face with my first pygmy. Paradoxically, it remained stationary and apparently unconcerned in my close presence, as often seems to be the case with species that are uncommonly observed by humans. We assume such creatures to be extremely crafty or rare, when often they are simply hard to see for some other reason.

So, a couple weeks ago, I was reading the Bitterroot Star newspaper when I discovered an article on pygmy owls by Dorinda Troutman, the Star's resident birder. She described how she and her husband had been hearing one (a "mellow whistled, hoo, hoo, hoo, hooo-hooo," she wrote) in her yard somewhere in the Bitterroot, but couldn't find it. However, she added that a friend had seen one at a puddle in a parking lot the week before.

It seems that observations of the pygmy owl may be limited more by our awareness of what to look for than by any effort on the part of this tiny bird to avoid us.

I'll let Dorinda describe this unusual owl. "A pygmy owl is rarely recognized as an owl, even by experienced bird watchers, since it is primarily a day flier. Next to the elf owl (a sparrow-sized owl of saguaro cactus country), it is the smallest North American owl. It is a pert little bird, about 7 inches long, with a wingspan of about 15 inches." My bird book boldly states that no other small owl has black streaks on its flanks. It is distinguished from the also small saw-whet owl by a long tail that usually projects beyond its folded wing tips when the pygmy owl is perched.

It may have been no accident that the pygmy in my yard chose a perch above the bird feeder. Once again, I defer to Dorinda's colorful description of the pygmy owl's food habits. "Because of its size it looks relatively harmless, but a pygmy owl will not hesitate to attack animals a great many times its own size. It will hurl itself at the throats of birds as large as grown quail, doves, flickers, even chickens, and mammals as large as ground squirrels and rats."

The pygmy owl is a year-round resident of the Seeley-Swan and other areas of western Montana. You might pay greater attention next time you see what appear to be two sparrows chasing each other in flight. One may be the proverbial owl in sparrow's clothing.

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