© Gregg Thompson

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Northern Pygmy-Owl

Glaucidium gnoma
Owls have an upright posture, large heads, forward-facing eyes, and strong, sharp bills with a pronounced downward curve. Most are nocturnal or semi-nocturnal. Exceptional low-light vision and keen directional hearing enable them to pinpoint the location of prey. Owls typically have extensive feathering, with feathers often extending to the tips of the toes. Cryptically colored and patterned plumage helps to camouflage them as they rest by day. Their dense, soft feathers allow them to fly silently. The world's two owl families are both represented in Washington:
Most of the world’s owls belong to this family. The differences between the two owl families are primarily structural. The facial disks and heads of typical owls are more round than those of Barn Owls, and their legs are generally shorter.
Uncommon resident.
  • Sound To Sage

General Description

The Northern Pygmy-Owl is a small, long-tailed owl, with yellow eyes and feet. It has only small and inconspicuous ear-tufts, which are seldom seen in the field. Its plumage is reddish-brown spotted with white. Like all members of its genus, it has false eye-spots, black outlined in white, on the back of its neck. Its belly is white, with dark streaks. It usually perches in a diagonal rather than upright position.


Northern Pygmy-Owls breed in coniferous and mixed woodlands. They prefer areas with scattered openings rather than large tracts of unbroken forest.


While they are most active at dawn and dusk, Northern Pygmy-Owls are often seen during the day, especially when it is overcast. They usually perch in the open at the very top of a conifer or snag or in a small tree. When perched, they commonly bob their heads and flick their tails up and down, often holding their tails to one side. Northern Pygmy-Owls are aggressive hunters, fast enough to chase prey in flight. Small songbirds often mob them, and imitating the call of a Northern Pygmy-Owl will often bring songbirds close in for observation.


Northern Pygmy-Owls eat rodents, large insects, and small birds, which make up to one third of their diet in some places.


Monogamous pairs form in the spring. Northern Pygmy-Owls nest in natural tree cavities or old woodpecker holes. They do not add nest material. The female incubates 3 to 4 eggs for about 28 days, waiting for all the eggs to be laid before beginning incubation, a behavior unique among North American owls. While she is brooding, the male brings her food. The female stays on the nest and broods the young for the first week or so after they hatch. During this time, the male continues to bring food to the nest. The young begin to fly at 27 to 28 days.

Migration Status

While Northern Pygmy-Owls do not undertake a regular seasonal migration, birds at higher altitudes may wander down-slope in fall and winter, as they follow the movement of their prey. During this time they may be seen at the lower edges of forests, along streams in the shrub-steppe region, and even in hay fields and pastures.

Conservation Status

Northern Pygmy-Owls are uncommon but widespread. There is no evidence of range-wide decline. There is little information as to their abundance in Washington, which may reflect either a small population, a low rate of detection, or both. As long as some large nesting trees are left standing, Northern Pygmy-Owls probably benefit from logging, as they are well adapted to using a combination of young forests and open areas. There are two subspecies in Washington, one on each side of the Cascades.

When and Where to Find in Washington

Northern Pygmy-Owls are fairly common year round in Washington, in forested areas in and on both sides of the Cascades. They avoid urbanized areas and are more common east of the Cascades. They are often seen east of the Cascades in winter at forest edges up to the snow line.

Click here to visit this species' account and breeding-season distribution map in Sound to Sage, Seattle Audubon's on-line breeding bird atlas of Island, King, Kitsap, and Kittitas Counties.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
Pacific Northwest CoastUUUUUUUUUUUU
Canadian RockiesUUUUUUUUUUUU
Columbia PlateauUURRRRRRUUUU

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern