WatchList Species Account for Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi)

Qualifies for the list as a Declining Yellow List Species


Elf Owl

Photo: Greg Clark, 2002

The world’s smallest owl, the Elf Owl, breeds in a limited range in subtropical thorn woodland, upland desert, montane evergreen woodland and riparian forest in several populations near the U.S.-Mexico border from the Colorado River to the lower Rio Grande, wintering in southern Mexico. There are also three resident populations in Mexico. Little information is available about the Elf Owl’s overall population status.


This small owl is insectivorous, and nests in woodpecker cavities. It is probably the most abundant raptor in upland deserts of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, but due to loss and degradation of habitat it has become quite rare in parts of its U.S. range.


Riparian habitat is threatened throughout the western U.S. due to water diversion, degradation of unfenced streams by cattle, and the invasion of non-native plants, particularly salt cedar.


Drought at lower elevations and freezing temperatures and snow cover at higher elevations may locally depress or even extirpate some Elf Owl populations. Reintroduction programs for the species in southern California have met with mixed success. Efforts to reestablish the bird in riparian woodland along the Lower Colorado River, including use of nest boxes, has also met had variable results.