As a bird, your incredible agility gives you a huge advantage over other “prey” species in your environment. You are so nimble, after all, that practically nothing can catch you, and as such, most predators ignore you. But your speed doesn’t mean a thing if you never see the attack coming. You nervously scan the world above you, because even a split-second lapse in concentration means certain death. Your one comfort? It is broad daylight, and that, of course, means that you are safe from the horrors of the night: namely, those dreaded owls. Right?
As alone as you think you are, you are being hunted by an owl that defies all stereotypes by seeking his quarry in the middle of the day. He makes a clear mark on his territory by catching prey and storing it for later, leaving his kills impaled on branches, dangling there for future consumption. Yet the predator himself is nearly invisible; his light brown coloring and fine white spots help him blend in perfectly within the maze of tree trunks you both call home. As an owl, he makes almost no noise when flying, which means you won’t hear him coming. You won’t see him. You won’t even know he’s there until you feel his talons, and by then it is too late to fly. Only if you are truly wary, or truly lucky, will you catch a glimpse in time of the two ounces of silent fury coming your way.
The northern pygmy owl continues the tendency of small owls being shockingly ferocious. It forgoes the night in favor of using stealth and ambush tactics to dominate from dawn to dusk. And it is a dominant bird, at least among animals of comparable size. The northern pygmy owl eats all manner of small birds, as well as rodents, reptiles, and insects. The northern pygmy owl is very closely related to the ferruginous pygmy owl, with the former active in forests through western North America, while the latter is commonly found in the Desert Southwest and ranges extending into South America. Like the ferruginous pygmy owl, the northern pygmy owl is frequently mobbed by its prey. When small birds detect a predator in their midst, they will gang up on it to drive it out, with several species taking part in the impromptu posse. Even hummingbirds have been known to join these angry mobs and dive-bomb the offending bird of prey en masse. Obviously, a two-ounce owl has much more to fear from such group retaliation than a larger raptor would; to help protect itself, the northern pygmy owl’s camouflage includes two conspicuous black dots on the back of its head. These markings make it difficult for animals to tell for certain which direction it happens to be facing, and when it comes to any predator, a head-on approach always generates more hesitation than coming at it from behind.
Having thirteen owl species present in our state provides an incredible opportunity for birdwatching, and taken together they quickly dispel the idea that owls are a standardized lot. Big, small, nocturnal, diurnal, crepuscular, and in one case even ground-dwelling: they are an incredibly diverse group of predators, yet from the smallest to the very largest, they epitomize what it means to be a lethal bird of prey. The northern pygmy owl is waiting in the treetops of Arizona’s forests for those brave enough to meet him. Be warned, however: he is rather small, very hard to spot, and more than likely, he will be the one watching you.