Elf Owl: Small owl, gray-brown body heavily mottled white and cinnamon-brown. Round head lacks ear tufts; facial disk bordered by thin, black line. Eyes are pale yellow highlighted by white eyebrows. Wings are long. Bristly feathers sparsely cover feet and legs. Tail is short with 3 to 5 pale bars.
Range and Habitat
Elf Owl: Breeds in southwest U.S. and northern Mexico. Winters in central and southern Mexico. A resident population occurs on the southern Baja Peninsula. Preferred habitats include deserts, thorn scrub, and mesquite or deciduous riparian woodlands; most abundant in deserts dominated by giant saguaro.
Barn Owls and Typical Owls (Tytonidae and Strigidae)
The STRIGIFORMES (strih-jih-FOR-meez) is an order of mostly nocturnal birds with two families; the barn owls and the true owls.
A family found in major habitats on all continents except for Antarctica, there are one hundred and ninety-nine species of owls in twenty-five genera in the Strigidae (STRIH-jih-dee).
Forty-one species of true owls in fifteen genera occur in North America. Members of this family include small species such as the screech owls and Elf Owl, the diurnal Snowy Owl of the arctic and the huge Great Horned Owl, a top predator.
Owls are mostly known for their nocturnal behavior although a few species such as the Snowy Owl and pygmy owls are also active during the day. Their ability to remain hidden during daylight also makes most species infamously difficult to find and see.
Owls have stocky heads (some species with feathers that resemble horns), a hooked bill, and forward-facing eyes. Most have fairly long wings and all have sharp talons on powerful zygodactyl feet (two toes facing one way and two the other way) used to kill their prey. Apart from the long-tailed pgymy owls and Hawk Owl, members of this family have short, broad tails.
Black markings with shades of gray and various brown tones describe the colors of most owl plumages (except for the mostly white Snowy Owl). What owls lack in bright colors is made up for with beautiful combinations of streaked and barred patterns that camouflage them during the day.
In North America, although owls are found in all habitats, several species such as Barred and Spotted Owls reside in forests or in the case of Long-eared and screech owls, at least require forest patches for nesting and roosting. Open habitats such as weedy fields with a healthy rodent population are the preferred habitat of the Short-eared Owl and occasional wintering Snowy Owls that breed in the Arctic tundra. Both forest and open country is utilized by the Great Horned Owl, an incredibly adaptable bird that even occurs in some cities.
In addition to movements that northern owl species make during years when few prey items are available on their breeding grounds, some owl species are annual short distance migrants and at least two are known to migrate to Mexico and Central America.
Except for Long-eared and Short-eared Owls that sometimes form large winter roosts, owls are solitary birds that swoop down to take prey items from the ground and the trees. Depending on the species, prey can include anything from insects to various small mammals and birds (including other owls) and in the case of Great Horned Owls, mammals up to the size of skunks.
In North America, two species are locally endangered due to destruction of their specialized habitats; the Spotted Owl and the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. In the Pacific Northwest, the Spotted Owl requires old growth forest while the pygmy owl requires old growth cacti and thorn forest in Arizona and Texas.
Owls have soft feathers that quiet their wing beats, thus helping them surprise their prey. Another adaptation to finding prey is their forward facing eyes and asymmetrically placed ears (for triangulating sounds made by potential prey) that combine with their disk-like facial structure that aid in pinpointing the location of prey items in the dark of the night and even under drifts of snow.