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Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl may receive federal protection, again

Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Photo by Bob Miles/Arizona Fish and Game

Following multiple petitions and lawsuits by the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed in late December to protect Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls once again under the Endangered Species Act — this time as a threatened species. 

Following a 1992 petition from the Center, pygmy-owls were protected as endangered in Arizona from 1997 to 2006, but that protection was stripped away from the owls after developers successfully sued the Service. The Center and Defenders fought to regain protection for the tiny, imperiled owls, resulting in the proposal to protect them across their range in Arizona, Texas, and parts of northern Mexico. 

“It’s beyond sad that threats to the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl are so severe, but I’m glad it’s finally getting badly needed protection under the Endangered Species Act,” said Noah Greenwald, the Center’s endangered species director. “The Sonoran Desert is unravelling before our very eyes. If we don’t act fast, the pygmy-owl, along with the saguaro cactuses it calls home, will be only a memory.”

In Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico, the species is threatened by urbanization and the planting and rapid spread of invasive buffelgrass, which spreads fire that eliminates the columnar cactuses and other desert vegetation needed by the owl. It is also threatened by droughts driven by climate change. Pygmy-owl numbers have declined to the low hundreds in Arizona.

“There’s no better indicator of the health of the beautiful Sonoran Desert than the diminutive yet fierce Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl,” said Greenwald. “Saving this little owl means saving the desert ecosystems we all love.”

In Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico, the pygmy-owl is threatened by agricultural development and human population growth, which fragments populations. Further south in western Mexico, including portions of Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, and Michoacan, pygmy-owl numbers are higher, but habitat loss to urbanization and agriculture is ongoing and the species is expected to continue to decline. 

Pygmy-owl background

Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are generally under 7 inches long, weigh less than 2.6 ounces, and are reddish brown overall with a cream-colored, streaked belly. They have two dark brown or black spots on the back of their heads that give the appearance of eyes. 

The owls are secondary-cavity nesters, meaning they use cavities excavated by woodpeckers and other species in saguaro cactuses and trees. They prey on a variety of insects, lizards, and small mammals. Like other pygmy-owls, the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl emits a series of toots when establishing a territory or calling to mates.

In 2013, readers of BirdWatching voted Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl one of the birds they want to see most. Here are 10 things you might not know about the species.

Thanks to the Center for Biological Diversity for providing this news.

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