A Mighty Little Owl

Northern Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium gnoma) with Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius)

May the owl share his keen sight and intuition, to help you see things that are hidden. Owl Wisdom

I’ve only seen the Northern pygmy-owl four times in twenty years of forest living, including this one. Most recent happened in October under cloudy skies. As I poured a second cup of coffee, I happened to glance out the kitchen window, and noticed a strange-looking bird on the ground. First, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Then, I realized I was looking at two birds—a Northern pygmy-owl with its prey, a varied thrush. I had missed the takedown by seconds. Although I felt a loss for the thrush, I was also excited by the sight of this seldom seen little owl during one of its most intimate predator-prey moments.

About the size of a sparrow, the Northern pygmy-owl  (Glaucidium gnoma) is the Pacific Northwest’s smallest owl. This year-round resident is seldom seen. A day hunter, it prefers semi open, conifer-deciduous, mountain forests, and is less common among valleys and plateaus. The owl is a fierce hunter despite its small size, and with aggressiveness, can capture prey larger than itself—from hummingbirds to bobwhites. Other prey includes small mammals such as mice, moles, shrews, and chipmunks as well as small lizards, and insects. Its call is a succession—a hollow, high-pitched toot.

Norther Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium gnoma) dragging a Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius)

Slowly, and quietly, I stepped onto the back deck. The pygmy-owl still clutching its prey, watched my every move. His angry bird expression, one of permanence, and large, piercing, yellow eyes looked as if they could see right through me. I kept a respectable distance. The little owl looked exhausted after what must have been an arduous task wrestling a bird twice its size. Birds and squirrels fled for cover, and the woods were silent. I kept still. I kept still for fifteen grueling minutes watching the owl sit on his thrush. The twice-the-size meal was much too heavy to fly with. I thought he might eat the thrush on-the-spot, but he didn’t. Instead, the little owl dragged the thrush with a laborious hop-step motion through dried leaves. It took five minutes to move five feet to the cover of the ferns. I thought, all right, now he can enjoy his twice-the-size meal in seclusion, but he didn’t. He left the thrush, and perched several minutes on a vine maple branch that arched several feet above where the thrush lay abandoned, and left for scavengers.

Northern Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium gnoma) perched in a cedar tree

The little owls rapid wing beats carried him to a cedar tree thirty feet away. There, he stayed for ten more minutes ruffling his feathers, and preening. Then, he took to the air again, and the mighty little owl was gone.

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