Hurik is a Northern Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium gnoma) who was brought to the VTH in October of 2014. He had a left elbow dislocation and some swelling at the left wrist. Over the first night Hurik was at the hospital he chewed at his left wrist and caused enough damage that his wing needed to be amputated. Thankfully, his wing could be amputated at the elbow as amputations any closer to the shoulder have proven to be too detrimental to balance for many birds and are thereby not humane. Hurik has adapted very well to life without that part of his wing and once the site healed he began on his training as an educational bird. Hurik’s name means small fire in Armenian and was chosen for him because even though Northern Pygmy Owls are small, they can be very ferocious predators.
Northern Pygmy Owls are native to Canada, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. They are found in a wide variety of forest types, including open oak groves, sycamores in canyons, pike-oak woodlands and coniferous forests in the far north and high mountains. Generally they are found in partly open habitats rather than solid unbroken forests.
Northern Pygmy Owls are monogamous, at least within one year’s breeding season. Males attract females to their nest site by perching at the entrance and giving a tooting call. Both parents take part in providing food for young, with the male bringing much of the prey and female feeding it to the young. Pygmy owls nest in cavities in trees, either in a natural hollow or in abandoned woodpecker holes.
Northern Pygmy Owls are diurnal, meaning they hunt during the day. Their diet varies greatly with location and season and can include rodents, birds, insects, and lizards. Rodents, such as voles and mice, and songbirds, such as waxwings and chickadees, are often major prey. However, during warm weather, these owls eat many large insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, and beetles. In southern parts of their range, Northern Pygmy Owls may catch more lizards. When they find extra food, they often cache their prey in tree cavities or by hanging it on thorns, as shrikes are famous for doing.
Because songbirds can make up to ⅓ of their diet, it is common to find small birds (such as hummingbirds, wrens, warblers, jays, and blackbirds) mobbing these owls. By following a noisy commotion of songbirds focused on one location you may be able to spot these otherwise elusive owls in the wild.
Unlike other raptors, owls have no crop for food storage. They often swallow their food whole or in large chunks, and it goes directly to their stomach. In the stomach, a pellet (or cast) is formed from the fur, bones, and other indigestible material. The pellet is then regurgitated 10+ hours later. Because owls do not have a high enough stomach acidity to digest bones, larger owl pellets can easily be dissected to find the skeletons of their most recent prey.
Northern Pygmy Owls are unique among owls in the fact that they don’t have proper facial discs and their ears are not asymmetrically placed. In other owls, the facial disc, which consists of stiff feathers around the beak and eye, direct sound back towards their ears which are asymmetrically placed (one up and forward and the other back and down, although which side is which varies with species). Other owls use these adaptations to triangulate the source of the sound of their prey. Some owls rely more on sound than others for hunting which can generally be told by the size ratio of their eyes to their facial disc. In the Northern Pygmy Owl for example, their large eyes and virtually absent facial disc tell you that they hunt more by sight than by sound. On the other hand, owls with smaller eyes and larger, more defined facial discs, like Barn Owls and Great Grey Owls, rely more heavily on hearing.
All owls do have several characteristics that can be used to differentiate them from other raptors. For example, the leading edge of their flight feathers is serrated like a bread knife. This breaks up air turbulence and allows them to fly completely silently. This makes it so the owls’ prey doesn’t hear them coming and so the sound of their wings doesn’t interfere with the owls’ hearing.
Owls also have unique feet relative to most other birds. Instead of standing in the anisodactyl arrangement with three toes pointing forward and one pointing backward, they stand in the zygodactyl arrangement, with two toes forward and two backward. However, while hunting, owls have the ability to rotate their third toe forward into an anisodactyl arrangement.
The main predators of Northern Pygmy owls are larger owls and raptors as well as some mammals such as weasels. Northern Pygmy owls can raise a pair of tufts on the sides of their head, called plumicorns, when threatened by a predator, such as a hawk or a cat. They also have a pair of spots on the back of their neck that look a little like eyes. Scientists believe these markings may help fool attackers or mobbers into thinking the owl is watching them.