Meet “Elf”—the world’s tiniest, most incredible owl

Animals & Nature Oct 29, 2023

So, check it out – we’re in a dry Texas riverbed, and as the sun dips below the horizon, this teeny owl pops out of a hole in a sycamore tree. We’re talking about the Elf Owl, which happens to be the tiniest owl around, with wingspan smaller than a six-inch sub and weighing less than a golf ball.

But don’t let its size fool you. When night falls, this little guy goes full-on hunter mode, searching for beetles, crickets, spiders, and occasionally, a lizard or a mouse. And when it’s feeling fancy, it chows down on scorpions minus the stingers, storing them for later grub.

Image Credit: Jordan Crouch

These mini owls love to hang out in the woodlands and cactus-filled deserts of Southwest Texas and Southern Arizona. They’re all about nesting in woodpecker holes in those tall saguaro cacti – talk about resourceful! Just like their larger owl buddies, these guys are like the James Bonds of the bird world. When they swoop around, their wings make this sneaky whooshing sound.

Image Credit: Nathan Smith

Now, here’s the cool part: Owl wings have some secret features that make them quiet operators. They’ve got extra bits on the front edge and fuzzy feathers on the back edge that mess with the airflow and hush the noise. Plus, the feathers on their wings and legs are like noise-canceling headphones, absorbing over 80% of any leftover sound. So, critters don’t even realize they’re on the menu until it’s too late. When winter comes, these Elf Owls peace out to Mexico for a bug buffet.

Image Credit; Joshua Stewart

But in the American Southwest, spring is fashionably early, and by late February or early March, our tiny owls are back in town, ready to start a family. Mama Owl usually lays a batch of one to four eggs in the spring, and they hatch in just three weeks.

Image Credit: James Tozer
Image Credit: James Tozer

Daddy Owl takes charge of the food deliveries at first, but after a while, Mama Owl joins the grocery run to feed their hungry little ones. Even though these owls prefer to fly away from trouble, they’ve been seen teaming up against the big bullies, like great-horned owls. They’re like the avian neighborhood watch – two Elf Owls swoop down, make a big fuss, and sometimes, other birds (even different species) join the scuffle. But when the real danger gets too close, Elf Owls pull a sneaky move – they pretend to be gone ’til it’s safe. It’s like their ninja escape move. And that’s how they keep the great horned owls from having Elf Owl takeout for dinner!