By: Max Gotz
Date: February 2, 2001
Formerly known simply as Pygmy Owl, The Northern Pygmy-Owl was described by A.C. Bent in the first life history of this bird as a “blood-thirsty and rapacious fiend.” Hardly the description one would expect for a bird one third smaller than and about the same weight as an American Robin.
This tiny owl has thrilled or horrified owners of bird feeding stations who regularly witness its bold attacks on starlings, towhees, jays, and in one case, a Mourning Dove! They can easily kill larger birds with a sudden surprise pounce from above which usually ends with the hapless victim pinned to ground by needle-sharp talons and a powerful flesh-ripping beak.
Although rarely seen in Whistler, it occurs regularly here and is easily identifiable by its small size and the “false eyes” on the back of the neck – a pair of black spots thought to discourage an attack from behind. Whistler birds are brownish-red to brownish-grey overall and are often detected by their call, a rather monotonous hollow sounding single or double “toot” note given in a widely spaced series. Northern Pygmy Owls are diurnal so don’t waste your time searching for this owl at night.
The migration of this mysterious owl is still poorly understood. There is no information on long distance movements but B.C. ornithologists suspect an altitudinal migration from higher elevation breeding areas in summer to lower elevation wintering grounds. This correlates nicely with sightings in the Whistler valley bottom which are almost all from fall and winter.
Although this bird may breed in the higher elevations around Whistler, only five nests have ever been found in B.C., all of them in abandoned woodpecker holes in coniferous trees. Northern Pygmy-Owls can be difficult to find but once they are located these birds can be remarkably tame and often allow a close approach. But you might want to think twice about getting too close – it is possibly, ounce for ounce, the most ferocious bird in North America.
A stuffed Northern Pygmy-Owl is on permanent display at the Whistler Museum.