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CACTUS FERRUGINOUS PYGMY OWL } Glaucidium brasilianum cactorum
FAMILY: Strigidae

DESCRIPTION: Pygmy owls average 6.5 inches in length and weigh only 2.5 ounces. The feathers on the bird’s back are creamy brown, and the underside is cream colored with reddish-brown stripes. The top of its head is slightly streaked, and on the back of the head are two black eye-spots outlined in white. Pygmy owls’ eyes are yellow and round. Their tails are longer than those of most owls, and they have no tufts on their ears.

HABITAT: The pygmy owl lives along desert rivers, washes, and in pristine Sonoran Desert habitats at elevations below 4,000 feet. It prefers desertscrub thickets, trees, and large cacti for nesting and roosting. It often lives where ironwood, mesquite, acacia, and saguaro and organ pipe cacti can be found. This vegetation provides good cover for its favorite prey and also shields it from larger birds of prey.

RANGE: Cactus ferruginous pygmy owls live in the desert habitat of southern Arizona and in northwestern Mexico. Most live in the ironwood forests northwest of Tucson and Marana.

MIGRATION: Cactus ferruginous pygmy owls do not migrate.

LIFE CYCLE: Late in the winter or early spring, these owls begin nesting in the cavities of trees or cacti like the saguaro and organ pipe, in holes often made by woodpeckers. They lay three to five white eggs in late April, which hatch about 28 days later. The young owls are fed by both parents. They leave the nest about 27 to 30 days after hatching, but stay close to their parents until they are ready to be on their own.

FEEDING: A ferocious predator of birds and small rodents, lizards, insects, frogs, and earthworms, the pygmy owl is active at dawn and dusk and often hunts by day.

THREATS: Habitat destruction from urban sprawl and agriculture threaten the owl, along with logging, woodcutting, and livestock overgrazing.

POPULATION TREND: Once very common, the pygmy owl could be found in Arizona from the New River north of Phoenix to the Mexican border. Now it can only be found between Tucson and points south. Since 1993, no more than 41 pygmy owls have been found in Arizona in any year, and in recent years fewer than 30 have been documented. In northwest Tucson, only one owl was found in 2006. Although there are more birds in Sonora, pygmy owls in northern Sonora have declined by 26 percent since 2000. Mexico has few habitat protections and literally hundreds of thousands of acres of pygmy-owl habitat have been, or are being, converted to monocultures of African buffelgrass to support livestock grazing. The pygmy owl risks extinction in Sonora as well as Arizona.


Photo © Robin Silver