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NatureSpeak Articles

Northern Pygmy Owl: Tiny predator steals the Christmas show

I joined the early morning patrol, piled onto the Wizard Express in total darkness, and headed up the mountain for my part in the 2002 Christmas Bird Count. For years Blackcomb has been my beat. There have been blizzards when you couldn't see a bird if it landed on your ski tip but this year the day of the count dawned clam and clear.

Scanning the trees from the deck of the Rendezvous I spotted a half dozen grey joys silhouetted against the deepening red sky. With feathers fluffed up they perched quietly waiting for the first rays of the sun and the arrival of people with scraps of discarded food. Then I spotted the owl. Sitting on the very top of a large tree not far from the jays a tiny pigmy-owl stared back at my binoculars with small yellow eyes. Then, swivelling its head 180 degrees, like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, it appeared to glare at me with the fearsome false eyes on the back of its head.

With a wingspan of six or seven inches, the Northern Pygmy-Owl (Glaucindium gnoma) weighs in between two and three ounces. Not much bigger than a sparrow, these diminutive predators will attack prey several times their own size and, unlike most owls, they hunt by day. Because they rely on sight rather than sound the pygmies lack the broad, sound-gathering face and silent wings of other owls. They patrol the forest in search of small birds, shrews, voles, chipmunks, and large insects – often waiting on the highest branches of a tree before dropping and seizing their pray with needle-sharp claws.

Pygmies are solitary, fiercely territorial owls and females often fight over prime nesting sites. These are almost always old woodpecker cavities and their presence is an important part of the pygmy’s chosen habitat. The female incubates a clutch of three to seven eggs for about 29 days. During this time the male provides her with food and protects the nest from predators. After hatching the young owls fledge in about a month but continue to be cared for by both parents for another two or three weeks.

My owl stayed on his perch among the jays until the first skiers began arriving at the top of the Solar Coaster, then he fluttered off into the forest. Shortly afterwards I was joined by Shane and Cher and the three of us set out on the day’s count. To my amazement Shane spotted a second pygmy-owl over on Crystal Ridge and that evening Ken Melamed phone in a third sighting over on Whistler. Seems the vicious little hunters are doing OK on our local mountains.

As borders and skiers whipped past I tried to concentrate on looking for birds but my mind kept drifting off to survival – protecting my backside! Maybe I’ll paint some false eyes in the back of my helmet next year. Seems to work for the pygmy-owl.

Written by: Jack Souther


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