Small Owls

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) 8 inches long

Burrowing Owl

This unusual ground-dwelling owl favors open country–grassland, prairie, farmland and airfields. Cowboys called it the “howdy bird” on account of its habit of giving a little bowing curtsey as if it were saying “howdy!” It is often active during the day, though it does most of its hunting at dusk and during the night. In summer it eats mostly large insects such as grasshoppers and crickets as well as scorpions, centipedes and other arthropods. During the winter, when these insects are scarce, it switches to small mammals such as voles, mice and ground squirrels.

Burrowing Owl drawing

Field marks to look for include long legs, white “eyebrows,” yellow eyes and bill, brown upperparts with white spots on the back and wings. The chest is dark with white spots, white belly with brown barring. No other owl is so long-legged, and no other owl is found in the same habitat. They make their home in a burrow, often one formerly used by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats or other animals. Their burrows may be as long as 6-10 feet, and the nest is within the burrow where the female stays with the young while the male brings them food. The young leave the nest at about 6 weeks of age. These birds may be year-round residents in southeast Arizona or may migrate south to Mexico during cold seasons.

Burrowing Owl

If you would like to see Burrowing Owls, a good place to look is in Tucson at the Kino Ecosystem Restoration Project (KERP) near the lighted Kino Sports Complex at Ajo and Country Club Road in Tucson. This 141-acre site is just off the freeway, and you can park in the sports complex parking lot and walk the slightly-over-2-mile perimeter trail. There are riparian areas, mesquite bosques, creosote and grassland in this restored native habitat for urban wildlife. Displaced Burrowing Owls from the area are released at the KERP which provides numerous Burrowing Owl nesting tunnels. You may also see desert cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbit, Red-tailed Hawk, and Gambel’s Quail. The Tucson Audubon Society leads monthly bird walks here on the fourth Saturday of each month. For information and a map of the trail go here.

Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi) 5.25 inches long

This tiny owl, hardly bigger than a sparrow, is the smallest owl in the world. It inhabits saguaro deserts and wooded canyons. It feeds by night, mainly on insects and other arthropods including scorpions and spiders. It has a large, rounded head, yellow eyes and brown upperparts with white spots, brown and gray breast with white belly. Somewhat rare in the U.S. (probably because of loss of habitat), it inhabits the Mexican border area of Arizona. Since it feeds mainly on insects, which are unavailable in winter, it is strictly a summer resident north of the Mexican border, arriving early in spring and departing fairly early in fall. Also shown in the drawing is the Sonoran whipsnake; the drawing is from The Sonoran Desert by Day and Night by Dot Barlowe, referenced below.


Alderfer, Jonathan (ed.). National Geographic Field Guide to Birds: Arizona/New Mexico . Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006. This handy, really pocket-size (4×6) guide includes most of the birds you’re likely to see in Arizona. In addition to a photo, it includes information about behavior, habitat and specific local sites where you are likely to find the bird.

Western Screech Owl (Otus kennicotti) 8.5 inches long

Western Screech Owl, USFWS photo by Jim Rorabaugh

The Western Screech Owl is gray in color overall with blackish streaks and bars. Its eyes are yellow. This well-camouflaged little owl is more often heard than seen. Its call is a series of short, accelerating whistles. A nocturnal hunter, it preys principally on small rodents, small birds and insects, which it catches by swooping down from a lofty perch. It is a fairly common year-round resident in most of Arizona and New Mexico, particularly favoring open woodlands, riparian groves, suburbs and parks.

Western screech owl USFWS photo by Gary M. StolzA closely related species, the Whiskered Screech Owl (Otus trichopsis) is somewhat smaller at 7.25 inches long. It occurs in extreme southeast Arizona as an extension of its Mexican range. Like the western screech owl it is found in open woods at forest edges hunting rodents and insects. The two species are generally differentiated by their call. USFWS photo by Gary M. Stolz