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Northern Pygmy Owl—daytime hooter, friend to birders

PHOTO BY CHRIS DALE. FRIEND TO BIRDERS: The Northern Pygmy Owl is worth looking for during a daytime birding expedition in Whistler.

Why don't we see owls in Whistler more often? Before you label this a trick question and point out that owls are only active at night, so you wouldn't see, but rather hear them, what if I told you that one Whistler owl is active during the day all year long?

Whistler has 12 species of owl on its bird list: the Spotted Owl has been extirpated after losing its old-growth habitat to logging; neither the Barn, Western Screech, Long-eared, Short-eared or Boreal Owls are very common; September to February you might see Northern Hawk and Snowy Owls; and resident all year are Northern Saw-whet, Barred, Great Horned and Northern Pygmy Owls.

The only one of these permanent residents that hunts by day is the Northern Pygmy, and is thus the one you're most likely to see. But be prepared for something small—it's an owl the size of a robin, mostly dark brown and white, with a long tail and piercing yellow eyes. Look for them perching on the tops of conifer trees.

On top of its diurnal habits, the Northern Pygmy Owl is an amazing little bird. Although tiny, it's a ferocious hunter with a taste for songbirds and can take down prey up to three times its size.

One natural phenomenon associated with it that comes in super handy to birdwatchers is that small birds such as chickadees, warblers and jays will often "mob" Northern Pygmy Owls. A phenomenal behaviour to witness, mobbing involves prey birds swooping at flying or perched predatory birds to drive them away. Several different species will often join forces to mob a common threat.

It's nice to think of birdies chirping for the love of song, but mobbing birds have survival on their minds and tend to use similar-sounding call notes. This may act to recruit other individuals to form a mobbing flock. Mobbing calls may also tell a predator it has been spotted, causing it to move to another area. The calls can even alert still larger avian predators to go after the target of the mobbing!

How does this help a birdwatcher? Knowing that songbirds mob Northern Pygmy Owls, you may be able to find them by following a noisy commotion focused on one spot. But there's another trick, too. By regularly joining the Whistler Naturalists' monthly bird walk I've learned and seen something new each outing, including local birder Chris Dale imitating a Northern Pygmy Owl call so perfectly that songbirds mob his location! During the monthly bird walk on April 6, I listened and watched as he called in Black-capped Chickadees, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Song Sparrows, Pine Siskens and Ruby-crowned Kinglets by imitating a Northern Pygmy Owl.

So, keep your eyes open for this tiny owl, remember to look and listen for mobbing, use helpful birding resources like the free Merlin Bird ID app, and join a Whistler Naturalists' monthly bird walk to learn other birdwatching tricks.

Written by: Kristina Swerhun


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