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How Does an Elf Owl Survive?

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The world’s smallest owl species, the elf owl or Micrathene whitneyi, is about the size of a sparrow at only 5 inches tall. A desert species found primarily in Arizona and Mexico’s Sonoran desert, this owl’s diminutive stature makes it vulnerable to predators and other dangers. Although captive elf owls have been known to live as long as 14 years, in the wild they generally do well to live about five years, thanks to adaptations and behaviors that help them survive.

Food and Hunting Habits

Despite his tiny size, the elf owl is a bird of prey. He feeds primarily on insects such as moths and crickets, but sometimes he catches larger prey such as lizards, snakes, scorpions and even young kangaroo rats. The elf owl has highly developed hearing and night vision, and prefers to stay perched and wait for prey to come near before swooping down to catch it. This owl has adapted the ability to fly silently, with soft feathers on the edge of his wings muffling his approach as he descends on his prey.

Defense Against Predators

Despite being a predator, the elf owl is also prey to larger owl species, as well as hawks and Mexican jays. Young elf owls are also vulnerable to being eaten by snakes. In general, elf owls are nonaggressive, preferring flight to fighting; however, nesting elf owls will gang up along with their mates and neighboring elf owl couples to attack predators that approach the nest, alerting each other to the danger with song. This owl has been known to “play ‘possum,” pretending to be dead until the danger has passed.

Habitat and Reproduction

Elf owls prefer to nest and shelter in cavities created in trees and cacti by woodpeckers, where they are well protected from the elements and from predators. Although females usually only raise one brood each year, to help ensure propagation of the species, males claim and defend multiple nests so that alternatives are available if a nest fails or becomes compromised. Nesting pairs will replace lost clutches of eggs, and will sometimes breed a second brood if the first brood is lost before reaching maturity.

Elf Owl Conservation

Despite the vulnerabilities faced by the species, the elf owl is listed as “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Apart from predators, the biggest threat to this species is loss of habitation. Although they have adapted partially to urbanization, habitat loss has caused the species to become extirpated in Baja California and endangered in California and Arizona. Conservation efforts in these areas include captive breeding, habitat restoration and the provision of nest boxes to encourage breeding among the wild population.