Thursday, November 29, 2012


So, one my neighbors and fellow Educational Ambassador for the RMRP just came a'knocking, and apparently I goofed up on my "Owl of the Week" series:  I forgot the Burrowing Owl.  Completely and utterly forgot.  The good news is, there's one more article in this series to look forward to, so check back next week for a article about Burrowing Owls!


Owl of the Week: Northern Pygmy Owl

Hello again everyone!  I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving.  I myself had an extra helping of mice last Thursday--delicious.  At any rate, this is the final entry in the "Owl of the Week" series.  After today, we will have covered every resident specie of owl in Colorado, and, with the exception of the Mexican Spotted Owl, all the owls the Humans take care of here at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program.  Well, let's get going on the final owl in the series: the Northern Pygmy Owl. Northern Pygmy Owl
These little owls are particularly interesting owls.  Everything about them, from size to nesting habits, is a little different from most owls.  For one thing, they're the smallest specie of owl in Colorado, and the second-smallest in the United States (second to the Elf Owl).  They only stand a few inches tall, and weigh in at just 2-2.5 ounces, about as much as a slice of bread or ten quarters.  But, like most of the small owls (and large owls, for that matter), they are much tougher and more aggressive than their body size implies, and are willing to take on prey much larger than they seem able to kill, such as quail.  Smaller prey, however, is the norm, including small birds, rodents, and large juicy insects.  Showing the false-eyes on the back of the head
Other key features of their appearance:  there are three color morphs (red, grey and brown); their tails are proportionally long for an owl; their eyes are bright yellow; and there are two dark spots on the nape of the neck that look like false eyes.

They are also the only local specie of owl that is truly diurnal.  Northern Pygmy Owls, therefore, are missing many of the adaptations common among other owls, such as silent flight, above-average hearing, and night vision.

Northern Pygmy Owls live in the western United States, southwestern Canada, and in Mexico south through Guatemala.  Their preferred habitat is forest, ranging in elevation up to treeline.  They spend the majority of their time in the thicketed areas of forests, where they hunt from perches and fly rapidly between trees for cover.

Northern Pygmy Owls are almost entirely dependent on woodpecker holes to build their nests.  They live alone the majority of the year, only coming together during mating season.  Unlike most owls, the female doesn't start incubating the eggs until they are all laid, which happens over the course of a week.

The Humans here at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program just released a Northern Pygmy Owl earlier this week!  This bird was found at an intersection in Fort Collins.  The bird was largely uninjured, and had probably been caught in the wake of a car rather than actually being hit by a car.  Either way, the bird needed awhile to recuperate under the RMRP's care before being safely released into more suitable habitat than a city intersection.  Northern Pygmy Owls also are admitted to the RMRP after striking windows, or falling prey to domestic cats.  But rest assured, the RMRP is here to help them!

Northern Pygmy Owl at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program
Well, that's the end of the "Owl of the Week" series!  I really hope you learned a lot from it.  Remember to check out the original page to refresh yourself on all the reasons Owls Are Cool, and to find a list of all the owl species in Colorado with links to their profiles on this blog.  As always, remember you can subscribe to this blog by using the little box in the right sidebar; comments and questions below or at my email address ( are always welcome; the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program's official website is a great place to visit; our Facebook page is awesome; and you can follow me on Twitter with the name @RaptorProgram.  And, finally, yet most importantly, if you support the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program and the life-saving work the Humans do for the raptors in the region, please support us by donating here.  Thank you for all you do--we truly wouldn't be here without you!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Owl of the Week: Flammulated Owl
This week's owl is the Flammulated Owl, a tiny specimen that only weighs a couple ounces.  Their name, flammulated, refers to the fire-colored reddish feathers on their otherwise grey-brown faces.  The rest of their plumage is either greyish or brownish depending on the individual.  They are the second smallest raptors in the region, tipping the scales at just 45-65 grams, with a wingspan of 16 inches (about the same as the "wingspan" of Human hands).  Although it doesn't look like it, they actually do have ear tufts (they're just tiny, little ear tufts).
Being such small, inconspicuous owls, they are difficult to find in the wild, although their populations are actually quite healthy.  In the United States they live in mountain forests, usually Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir at elevations up to 10,000 feet.  They are obligate cavity nesters, meaning they only build nests in tree cavities.  Around Colorado they usually use old Northern Flicker or woodpecker holes.  Their range is very scattered, with little patches of habitat in all of the mountain ranges in the Western United States, but not in between.

Flammulated Owls only live around here in the summer breeding season, migrating south to Mexico and Central America during the winter.  This is probably because there's nothing for them to eat up here during the winter.  Unlike other small raptors which eat rodents and supplement their diets with insects, Flammulated Owls almost exclusively eat insects, and only occasionally supplement their diets with very small rodents.  Their favorite bugs to eat are moths, crickets and beetles.  They hunt from a perch at night, like nocturnal flycatchers.
One way to actually find a Flammulated Owl in the wild is by listening for its hoot.  It's a unique noise, although very monotonous.  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, it sounds like "blowing across the top of a bottle" over and over again.

At the RMRP, the Humans don't admit many Flammulated Owls, maybe one or two every couple of years.  When they are admitted, it's usually when they encounter a car or a window during migration.  They're considered a species of least concern, although they are also considered vulnerable because of their very specific habitat needs.
That's all I have for you about the Flammulated Owl.  I'll be taking a break this next week, just like all you Humans, so check back the following week for the final owl in our series, the Pygmy Owl (even smaller than the Flammulated Owl!).  After that, I'll need a new topic to write about, so if you have any ideas about what you'd like to read on this blog, shoot me an email at with your suggestions!  Have a great holiday week!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Owl of the Week: Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Based on the birds being admitted to the RMRP recently, it would have been very timely of me to swap around my article on Saw-Whet Owls (which we admitted two of a few weeks ago), and my article on Boreal Owls (which we admitted one of a few days ago).  Alas, while I'm remarkably wise, I am not prescient.
So, let's learn about Northern Saw-Whet Owls.  These birds are the cutest little murder-machines you've ever encountered, kind of like teddy bears armed with knives.  They're one of the smallest North American owls, standing just 5-6 inches high, with a wingspan of 18-22 inches, and weighing 2 1/2 - 4 oz (about as much as a quarter to a half cup of water).  They are non-tufted owls, with rather large heads in comparison to the rest of their little bodies.  They have a distinctive white "Y" shape on their face, and an overall streaked, buffy coloration elsewhere.  Their eyes are their most striking characteristic, slanty and bright yellow, and as innocent looking as doe eyes.  But at the other end of their body, their arsenal of eight small-but-sharp talons are always at the ready.

Saw-Whet Owl talons (
I've overheard Humans at the RMRP saying, "Saw-Whet Owls have the attitude of a female Golden Eagle packed into a tiny body."  It's not an exaggeration.  Not only do they have the attitude of a bird willing to fight for its life, they also take on (and take down) prey much larger than they are.  While Saw-Whet Owls typically dine on small rodents with a supplementary diet of songbirds and frogs, they don't turn down an opportunity to kill a squirrel, rat, or even a rock pigeon (about 4X heavier than the Saw-Whet Owl).

A picture to show the size of a Saw-Whet Owl.  (Please note:
this is a wild bird being held for banding, and this is not how
the RMRP handles birds)

Immature Saw-Whet Owls look very different from the adults, with a dark, chocolate-brown color on their heads, backs and wings, and a light brown color on their fronts.  They still have that clear white "Y" on their faces, though.  Saw-Whet Owls typically lay from 3-7 eggs in cavity nests (much like the other small owls we've learned about recently).  They fledge after 4-5 weeks, and are sexually mature in under a year.  Life moves fast for small birds like these.

Immature Saw-Whet Owls (
Their common name refers to the sounds they make when alarmed, which apparently sounds an awful lot like a saw being whetted.  Never having heard a saw being whetted myself, I'll have to take the Humans' word on this one.  The other sounds they make is a long series of "hoop-hoop-hoop", and they only vocalize like this during breeding season.  It sounds like this: Saw-Whet Owl call
These birds live in forests with dense areas for nesting.  They're year-round residents of the Rocky Mountains and southern Canada, and winter residents in much of the United States.  In Northern Colorado, a transition zone between the two ranges, they're most commonly seen passing through on migration.  In fact, the RMRP has admitted two Saw-Whet Owls in the past couple weeks, both window-strikes from encountering the large plate-glass windows of beautiful mountain homes as they passed through.  One of these birds has already been released to continue on his way, and the other is still in rehab working out some kinks in her flight.
An odd habit of these birds is to remain still and not fly away when they're discovered.  They're so adamant about not moving that people can readily approach them, and the owl will just sit and watch.  While it's cool from a photographer's perspective, and it allows an excellent chance to closely observe these birds in the wild, please respect its personal space and don't get so close that the bird is forced to fly away.  A reader of this blog actually discovered one of these owls in the wild a few weeks ago and encountered this unique behavior.  A link to his photo-essay is in the comments section for the Boreal Owl article.  I also recommend checking out that article so you can see the difference between the Saw-Whet Owl and the Boreal Owl, which look quite similar.

On a side note, I'm sure many of you have seen the following popular joke:

The bird in the top image is a Saw-Whet Owl, but you already knew that.  The owl in the bottom image is the lower half of the original Saw-Whet Owl, with a very photoshopped head of a much larger, very wet Eagle Owl on top.  The Saw-Whet Owl is also the star of the equally popular "Time For Tickles" image:

Now you know. 

Back to the serious stuff, there's not a lot of data about the population of Saw-Whet Owls, but it's clear to see from the recent admissions to the RMRP that they face similar threats as the other small owls:  window strikes, car hits, and other trauma.  The RMRP doesn't see many of these owls, but those that come through the doors here at our main facility are given quality care and the utmost respect, all the way from admit to release.

If you would like to support the RMRP, please use the donation link in the right sidebar.  Also, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and check out our official website to learn more.  Next week's owl (there are only two left!) is the dark-eyed Flammulated Owl.  Thanks for reading!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Owl of the Week: Eastern Screech Owl

I know I said last week that this week's owl would be the Saw-Whet Owl, but I was mistaken.  If we continue in order of size, it's actually time for the Eastern Screech Owl.  But don't worry, the Saw-Whet Owl will be along next week (really).

The Eastern Screech Owl is one of the more common small owls in the Northern Colorado region.  In fact, it's one of the more common small owls in the eastern United States.  The northeastern corner of Colorado is one of the western-most points of their range (Montana and Texas also have population bands of these owls).  West of here, the Eastern Screech Owl population fades into the Western Screech Owl population.  I've never seen one myself, but I hear they're very similar in appearance.  In fact, though there are ~23 species of Screech Owl (exclusive to the Americas), they all look remarkably similar.

Eastern Screech Owls are small, tufted owls that live in forested areas.  Their feather patterns allow them to blend into trees easily.  There are two color varieties of Eastern Screech Owls, referred to as 'morphs':  the grey morph and the red morph.  The red morphs make up ~1/3 of the population, but are far more common out east.  Their ear tufts are sometimes held flat, and sometime held upright.  As with the other tufted owls, these tufts help break up their silhouette so they can better blend into trees.
Being able to blend into trees so well, it makes sense that that's where they build their nests.  Eastern Screech Owls are cavity nesters, building their nests in natural holes in tree trunks, or in the abandoned homes of other cavity-nesting birds.  They readily use nest boxes, and have adapted well to suburban settings, so backyard nest boxes for these birds are quite common.  If you do install a nest box in your yard and Eastern Screech Owls take up residence in it, please be careful about letting your dog or cat outside when the young are fledging: cat-caught or dog-chewed chicks are a sadly common sight at the RMRP in the springtime.

Being so small (only 6-10 inches long, with a wingspan just under 2 feet, and weighing half a pound at most), Eastern Screech Owls don't catch terribly large prey, but they might catch larger prey than you'd think.  While small rodents and big insects are the most common, with a smattering of songbirds on the side, Eastern Screech Owls are quite capable of killing rabbits and grouse.

The Screech Owl actually doesn't make much of a screeching noise.  Its common vocalizations can be heard at this website.  Often times, because these birds are so small and camouflaged, the only way to find one is to hear it at night.
The Rocky Mountain Raptor Program takes in more Eastern Screech Owls on an annual basis than other small owls.  Part of this reason is the relative abundance of the owl, and part of the reason is their adaptation to urban and suburban settings.  But despite their healthy populations and strong adaptability, they still run into their fair share of trouble.  Many Eastern Screech Owls come in with head trauma and fractures from being hit by cars, and many come in as orphans in the spring and early summer.  Other injuries include window strikes, barbed wire fence encounters, and being caught by a dog or cat.  As with all the birds the RMRP sees, these birds receive the best possible care to get them back out to the wild for a second chance at freedom.  If you would like to support the work the RMRP does, please click here to donate.

Thanks again for taking the time to read this blog of mine.  I just checked the numbers, and page-views on  reached 20,000 today!  It was just six weeks ago that I was over-the-top excited about reaching 10,000 posts, so getting another 10,000 in such a short period of time has me surprised and thrilled.  Tune in next week to learn about the Saw-Whet Owl.  After that we'll only have a couple of owls species to look at, and then I'll need a new topic to focus on.  If you have any ideas, shoot them my way in a comment or email (  Just a reminder, you can follow me on Twitter @RaptorProgram, check us out on Facebook (Rocky Mountain Raptor Program), and find out more information and stories on our main website (which is brand new and shiny!).  If you would like to subscribe to this blog, use the box in the toolbar to the right.  Thanks for reading and supporting the RMRP!