Northern Pygmy Owl With (big) Prey

When you’re this small it takes guts to take on prey heavier than yourself but intestinal fortitude is this owl’s long suite.

  • I posted several images of this bird last year but this one (and this pose) are new to my blog.

First let me set the stage: Northern Pygmy Owls are tiny and well deserving of the “pygmy” part of their name. They only weigh 2.5 oz. which is less than an American Robin and only half as much as a Burrowing Owl. But their diminutive stature belies a tyrannical reputation. Distinguished American ornithologist A. C. Bent described the species as “blood-thirsty, rapacious . . . fiend . . . from the top of its gory beak to the tips of its needle-like-claws.”

And that description, though colorful, fits the bird I photographed well, including the “gory beak” part.


1/125, f/8, ISO 800, Canon 7D (my Mark II was malfunctioning), Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

I was incredibly lucky to photograph this owl in July two summers ago in southwest Montana at an elevation slightly above 8000′ and deep in a mixed spruce/fir forest. It already had prey when it flew across the dirt road in front of me and landed high in a tree. The conditions for photography were truly atrocious with deep shade mixed with intense sunlight but I did the best I knew how and then “fixed” what I could during processing.

I believe the prey is a Northern Pocket Gopher and they weigh from 2.75 – 4.63 oz. so this rodent was heavier than the owl and may have weighed almost twice as much (the owl looks as relatively large as it does because of its fluffed feathers and the many weight-saving devices of birds for flight). The owl hadn’t yet started feeding on the gopher so the caked blood on the top of its beak may have resulted from the coup de grâce or perhaps it came from a previous meal.

At the time I took this photo I didn’t realize how lucky I was to get it, especially taken as it was in breeding habitat. Northern Pygmy Owls are among the least studied owls on the continent and they’re only rarely seen during the breeding season, though they’re more commonly observed after breeding when they sometimes move into nearby towns to hunt birds and small mammals during the day. When folks are lucky enough to see one it’s often stalking songbirds at feeders.

It’s highly likely I’ll never again see a Northern Pygmy Owl, especially in breeding habitat and with prey, so I treasure the experience. And the images.


Late addendum: Thanks to input from several readers I’m now convinced the prey is not a Northern Pocket Gopher (the feet just aren’t right for that). When I first saw this rodent in the field I assumed it was a vole but then decided it wasn’t because it seemed too big and its head appeared to be too large relative to the body. At this point I’m not sure what it is…

Later addendum – I’m now convinced it’s a Long-tailed Vole, thanks to input from reader Patrick Kelly and from Jim Patton, Curator of Mammals at the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.



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