Through mid-May, dozens of teams of birdwatchers are competing in the 18th annual Great Texas Birding Classic. They’re counting birds in local, regional, or statewide tournaments to have fun and raise money for conservation. One of the hundreds of species teams may count is Elf Owl, the world’s smallest owl, which can be found in southern and western Texas.
Since March, users of eBird have reported the species at several locations within Big Bend National Park, at Davis Mountains State Park (Hotspot Near You No. 100), at Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park in South Texas, and at a few other places in the state.
In 2013, readers of BirdWatching voted Elf Owl one of the birds they want to see most. So, as the teams in the Great Texas Birding Classic try to find the species, we thought you’d enjoy this list of 10 things you might not know about Elf Owl:
To avoid being eaten or having their nests raided, small birds often gang up on larger birds or other predators. The behavior is known as mobbing, and it works because the predators are typically chased away. Elf Owls in groups of 3-6 have been known to mob Great Horned Owls, which are 35 times heavier, as well as gopher snakes and raccoon-like ringtails.
Not many birds are both mobbers and mobbees, but Elf Owls are. American Robins, Bridled Titmice, and Black-throated Gray Warblers have been observed mobbing Elf Owls.
It’s easy to understand why Elf Owls would mob larger birds: Great Horned Owls, hawks, and Mexican Jays will prey on adults and nestlings.
Why songbirds bother mobbing Elf Owls is curious; the small owls eat primarily moths, beetles, and crickets and have not been reported preying on birds.
In southeastern Arizona, Elf Owl is easiest to find from late March through mid-July, when it is most vocal. It remains in its breeding range in the United States until early October, when it migrates to Mexico.
Its migration routes are unknown, but it has been reported in spring and late summer in flocks. (How cool is that?)
The species was once reliable along the lower Colorado River in southern Nevada, southeastern California, and western Arizona, but it’s rare in the region now. In the 20th century, the bird lost out to water diversions, invasive plants, and development along the river.
In fact, it was listed as Endangered in California in 1980.
In 2004, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation launched a project to restore native plants and animals, including Elf Owls, along the river valley. Two of the goals are to create no less than 1,784 acres of Elf Owl habitat and to install lots of nest boxes.
In the spring of 2010 and 2011, researchers from the Great Basin Bird Observatory made detailed observations of owls and their habitats on the nearby Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge in western Arizona. The study was a critical step toward returning breeding Elf Owls to the lower Colorado River valley.
About Elf Owl
Less than 6 inches long and about 1.4 ounces in weight. Yellow eyes, white eyebrows, cinnamon facial disc, white spots on wings. (ABA Code 2)
Lower Colorado River, from southern Nevada, eastern California, and western Arizona, east to the Rio Grande River in New Mexico; Big Bend region of Texas east to Edwards Plateau and north to the Davis Mountains; Dimmit County, Texas, south through the Rio Grande, to Nuevo León, Mexico; southern region of Baja California; and western Mexico.
Unknown; has been described as “perhaps the most abundant raptor in upland deserts of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.”