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.



39 comments to Northern Pygmy Owl With (big) Prey

  • Laura Culley

    OK, I’m late again, but I just have to comment. Like Susan mentioned, the comparison to a Kestrel is right on! That size thing is nothing more than an optical illusion. In reality, they’re way bigger than a couple of goldens! And it’s the size of their determination and stubbornness that counts!
    And what a glorious photo! Serendipity is such a wondrous thing! But again, luck is where preparation meets opportunity.
    You ROCK!
    Now back to catching up again. Sigh…

  • karen

    Yup..I was gonna say Long Tailed Vole as well, based on size and tail length ;-D
    Really lovely photo…thanks so much, as always, for sharing your photos
    with us. They always make my day in this world of human madness….

  • Marty K

    Magnificent shot, Ron! Your cropping and processing is perfect! Love the little pops of blue on either side of the trunk and the way the trunk frames the subject and its “subject.” And I like the little bit of moss underneath the rodent, almost like its shadow. This is definitely worthy of a frame and some “wall estate!” 🙂

  • Len Boeder

    What a wonderful experience!

  • Ron: Thank you very much! Ultimately cool, and a gorgeous photo. Wow!

  • Absolutely stunning! As you said, an experience and image to treasure.
    Thank you for continuing to share your expertise and art. Keeps this mere mortal motivated!

  • James Marsh

    They don’t get much better.

  • Paul Hess

    Classic photo! Surely there are very few such captures of this elusive-to-see species with prey. I’m not a mammal expert, but the mammal seems a good bet as a Montane Vole (Microtus montanus) because of its unusually scruffy plumage and the fairly high elevation.

  • Dick Harlow

    WOW, that would be a Life Bird for me! Great shot, agree with Patty, “owl and prey” shot. The length of the gopher with tail looks like it would be the length of the owl.
    Man, you were fortunate! I can understand cherishing that experience!

  • Susan Stone

    Beautiful bird. The apparent comparative size of the prey makes perfect sense – it is clear from the photo that the prey is of a denser construction than its killer. I also like the lichens on the perch. I think the Northern Pygmy Owl, from your description is the Owl equivalent to the American Kestrel. They are both very efficient predators who seem to forget that their size should make a difference in what prey they go after.

  • This is a classic “owl and prey” image except for the oversized prey. I love the angle of the shot and the scraggly branches…Looks like a Robert Batrman painting. Amazing that that little owl was able to fly up to that branch with such big, heavy choice of prey…Our Maine neighbor found a saw whet sitting,dazed, in the middle of the road after something hit his car. It was dazed and hurt. He contacted the vet across the street and she tod him what to look for and what to do until he could release it, which he was able to do a couple of days later….such a tiny little thing….

  • sallie reynolds

    I love this photo. The background adds to the beauty as well as to the mystery of this bird. Around here, in Northern CA, they hunt in the daytime, and do not have silent wings! They are known for the remarkable strength of their feet. Owls, like falcons, often kill prey with a bite to the neck and this mini-killer certainly seems to have. The blood’s too bright to be from another kill, I think. Anyhow, they are small but fierce, to misquote Shakespeare. I had one as an education bird after it’s broken wing could not be healed well enough for sustained flight. He was cute, but a little devil.

  • Charlotte Norton

    Awesome Ron!


  • I love this photo so much! It may be my favorite of your photos to date. Amazing! I don’t think the prey is a pocket gopher based on the feet. Pocket gophers make their living digging and have long powerful claws in the front and pretty substantial back feet as well for pushing dirt behind them. Both front and back feet are relatively broad. I’m thinking the feet in your picture probably belong to a vole.

    • I think you’re right that it isn’t a pocket gopher, David. However, this guy was bigger than any vole I’ve seen and appears to have a larger head. I’m not sure what it is but then I’m no mammologist…

  • Superb image and thank you for the info about the bird! That’s my favorite part. 😀

  • Joanne OBrien

    Another great Photo. I’d love to see one of these guys some day. Did you take this from your truck or did you have to get out after you spotted him?

  • Judy Gusick

    Great shot, Ron! I’ve never encountered one of these – don’t think I’d ever want to lay hands on one either! 🙂 The smallest we get here (that I know of) are the Northern Saw Whet Owl which usually are found only after being spotted by magpies. We had a juvenile one year that was low in a spruce tree and we ran the magpies off until dark – some times I just can’t “let it be” 🙂

  • Diane Bricmont

    Spectacular, Ron! I love it when experience, skill and luck all come together at the right time!

  • gilly rolbein

    just magnificent. That is all I can say!