In nature, size does not seem to matter when it comes to ferocity and fearlessness.
One species of owl that is the smallest owl in Canada, has been nicknamed the “feathered fireball.”
The northern pygmy owl stands only seven inches tall and has a wingspan of 14 to 16 inches. In comparison, the largest Canadian species the great grey owl (not found on Vancouver Island) is almost four times as tall and has a five-foot wingspan.
Bold, ferocious and fearless hunters, pygmy owls are not afraid to take on prey that is twice their size; they have even been known to tackle blue grouse that outweigh them 20 times.
They dine on a variety of prey, favouring a different menu at different times of the year. The main diet includes small rodents, large insects mostly crickets and moths, reptiles and amphibians.
When they are feeding their young they become avid bird hunters; catching any bird they can overpower, they often resort to ambushing the bird into a shrub. Although this may seem cruel it is nature’s way of culling the birds that probably are unhealthy and unable to react to avoid capture.
Most owls are nocturnal, especially the larger owls, but the pygmy owl spends the night holed up in a tree cavity or hides in the dense cover of the trees. By becoming a daytime hunter, it avoids large owls and nocturnal mammals that prey upon small owls.
Like many species, the pygmy owls are patient hunters waiting on a branch for their prey to appear. Pygmy owls are easy to identify when they are perched; they have plump little bodies with long tails and rounded heads that closely resemble the saw whet owls. However, their coloration and distinct facial features set them apart.
Overall their heads, back and wings are dark brown, grey or rust coloured; their white bellies are adorned with black streaks. Small white dots pepper their faces and larger dots can be seen on their wings and tail feathers.
Probably one of the most interesting features are the “eyes in the back of their heads.” Like many fish and butterflies, pygmy owls have oval “false eyes” that are actually black feathers outlined with white.
This camouflage is used when the owls are perched during the day to ward of attacks from birds or to deter birds flying overhead from giving away the owls location with their raucous alarm signals. Pygmy owl’s actual eyes are bright yellow and appear to be frowning as they peer ferociously from under their white eyebrows.
Habitat for these diminutive owls includes open coniferous areas and tree-edged alpine meadows or deciduous forest edges; they can also be found at 10,000 feet in the summer months.
Nest sites for the pygmy and other small owls are often in “wildlife trees”; these are decaying trees that have been excavated by woodpeckers, leaving perfect cavities in which the owls can lay their eggs and raise their young whilst being hidden from predators.
These trees are on the decline as developers often remove them as an eyesore or danger; they actually provide homes and food for many wildlife species.
Three years ago, MARS was part of a study conducted to find out more about these secretive little pygmy owls. Little is known about their habits, lifespan, territorial range, feeding habits and reproduction.
The study was conducted along the Trent River area of Royston. The pygmy owls were fitted with a “backpack” containing a transmitter that enabled us to track the owls’ movement. One of the findings showed the area the owls used as their habitat it was a very small territory.
MARS received a pygmy owl a few weeks ago that had hit a window in Port Hardy; the owl was brought to our centre, where it spent a week recovering from bumps and bruises. It was very obvious that the owl had not sustained any major injuries and was extremely feisty and escaped from its cage when any opportunity arose.
Keeping highly strung species such as small owls, hawks and falcons, in captivity can often result in feather damage or superficial cuts and bruises. MARS posted a plea on Facebook for a “ride” home to Port Hardy for the little owl, it is important that we release our wildlife back to their territory whenever possible and we are often looking for volunteers that frequently travel up and down the island to help us transport wildlife back to their territory.
To report injured wildlife please call 250-337-2021; follow us on Facebook to check on a patient’s progress and coming events.
Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Thursday.