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Summit Outside: The Colorado pygmy owl – cute but deadly

DR. JOANNE STOLEN
Special to the Daily/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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According to Susie of Abby’s Coffee in Frisco, a pygmy was seen eating a sparrow right outside the coffee shop under a pine tree – a pygmy owl, that is. As the word “pygmy” denotes, they are a very small owl – and this one was about grapefruit size, according to Susie. I went back to the location of the sighting the following day, and all there was left of the sparrow it dined on were a few feathers – and we saw what might have been some pellets. The pygmy owl has very distinctive markings which make it unmistakable. It is grayish brown with a white chest with bold dark brown streaks. The long narrow tail has white bars, and it has white spots on the forehead, sides and back.It looks like it has eyes in the back of its head as there are two black spots on the nape of the neck. Maybe this protects the owl from attack from the rear. It has a pale, yellow beak, and the irises of the eyes are bright yellow. Unlike most owls, it lacks ear tufts. In Colorado, we have 13 of the 18 North American species of owls. The Colorado Pygmy Owl is grayer in color than the species on the Pacific coast which tend to be brown. The pygmy owl is the one of the smallest owls in North America. Small but fierce, it is one of the few owls that hunt by day, usually at dawn or dusk. This allows the pygmy owl to prey on birds, which are also diurnal, and which are not usually hunted by owls. This diminutive owl attacks prey as large as, or larger than itself: jays, large songbirds, small grouse, ground squirrels, voles, reptiles and amphibians; often swooping down on them in mid-air much like a falcon does. The little owls with huge eyes are extremely cute and appealing, but they are fierce, with sharp beaks and talons, and they drive these talons into a prey’s throat. You might find a favorite perch by spotting spit-up neatly packaged pellets of indigestible bone, hair, and there might be piles of feathers as they pluck their prey before eating. During the winter, surplus prey is often cached in a cavity of a tree. You might also hear them. This daytime hunter does not have the soft, silent feathers of the night owls and its wings make a whirring sound.

The pygmy owl’s call is a mellow “hoo” or “hoo-hoo” repeated in a series of spaced “hoos.” Sometimes you will hear a rapid series of “hoo” or “took” notes followed by a “took.” Males will regularly perch at the top of the tallest available conifer trees to issue their territorial call. While at rest, a pygmy owl will sit with its tail cocked and often twitches its tail when excited. The flight between perches is short and rapid. It plummets downwards as it leaves a perch before leveling off, and then swoops up to the next. If the next perch is a tree, it will tend to land low, then moves up through the tree to a higher perch. When threatened, it will puff up its feathers and spread its tail to make itself look larger. When hiding, it tries to look thin, faces the danger and closes its eyes into slits.

Pygmy owls are mostly solitary. During mating season they look for someone to set up house with. During courtship, both sexes call to each other with a mating trill, share food and snuggle closely. They will seek out an old woodpecker nest and re-arrange it. The female will lay three to seven eggs in the spring. The female pygmy Owl does the incubating while the male brings food and defends the nest. The owlets grow quickly and after about one month they are able to fly. They stay with the parents for another 30 days or so learning survival skills. The family unit breaks up in the fall and they go their separate ways. Although it is a fierce predator, the pygmy owl can in turn get harassed by groups of smaller birds. It is the frequent target of “mobbing” by songbirds, and the racket can betray the owl’s location. It is not uncommon to see a group of blackbirds or swallows chasing a hawk or eagle, or a group of songbirds, fluttering and making noise around a perched owl. Such “mobbing” behavior is probably the most frequently observed small bird defense or warning against predators. What we don’t understand about mobbing is why predators don’t simply turn on their tormentors and snatch up one or two of the “mobbing” birds.

Did you know a group of owls is called a “parliament” and other terms that have been used for owls are: “bazaar,” “brood,” “congress,” “diss,” “eyrie,” “glaring,” “hooting,” “looming,” “nest,” “sagaciousness,” “stare,” “stooping” and “wisdom.” Lists of collective nouns originated in the 15th century and it seems as if most of these terms (which are often referred to as “terms of venery”) relate to hunting, and are from British, or French aristocracy. There you have it!Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology Rutgers University, and has taught classes at CMC. She is now pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.


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