A small, migratory owl of the western U.S., southwestern Canada, and much of Mexico, the Flammulated Owl is nocturnal and is most active near dusk and dawn. Flammulated Owls are aggressive towards intruders near their nest.
While most people tend to think of owls as eating mice and other small rodents, the Flammulated Owl eats insects such as beetles and moths almost exclusively. Small birds will mob Flammulated Owls like they do other predatory birds, even though they have little to fear from this insectivorous owl.
Length: 7 inches
Wing span: 16 inches
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Description of the Flammulated Owl
The Flammulated Owl is a small owl with grayish upperparts marked with variable amounts of reddish, short ear tufts, vermiculated underparts, and dark eyes. There are red forms and gray forms.
The sexes are similar.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles are mostly grayish.
Flammulated Owls inhabit open pine forests.
Flammulated Owls primarily eat insects.
Flammulated Owls forage at dawn and dusk, watching for prey from a perch and flying out to grab it from the air or from foliage.
Flammulated Owls breed in parts of the western U.S. and southwestern Canada and winter in Central America. The population is not well monitored.
Flammulated Owls are small and well camouflaged, and often perch close to the trunk of a tree, making them difficult for birders to see.
The male Flammulated Owl brings food to the incubating female.
The song is a soft hoot given every few seconds.
- Screech-owls are larger and have yellow eyes.
The Flammulated Owl’s nest is in a tree cavity, often an old woodpecker hole.
Number: Usually lay 2-3 eggs.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 21-24 days, and begin to leave the nest in about another 3-4 weeks, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Flammulated Owl
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Flammulated Owl – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
FLAMMULATED SCREECH OWL
OTUS FLAMMEOLUS (Kaup)HABITS
This pretty and gentle little owl is now known to be quite widely distributed in mountainous regions from southern British Columbia and Idaho southward through Mexico to the highlands of Guatemala. It was first added to our list by Capt. John Feilner, who obtained a single specimen, a young bird, near Fort Crook, Calif., on August 23, 1860. Its nest was not found until June 15, 1875, when Charles A. Aiken took a single egg in Wet Mountain Valley, Cob. It is still one of the rarest of our owls and scarce in collections.
Harry S. Swarth (1904) evidently considered this owl as mainly a migrant in Arizona, though it is well known to breed there, for he says:
Although the Flammulated Screech Owl is quite a common migrant in the Huachucas some years, I believe that but very few remain to breed, the bulk of them going farther north. In 1896 eight, and in 1902 seven, specimens were secured; and of these, I believe all but one were migrating birds. * * The earliest secured was on April 22, 1902, and the latest on May 12 of the same year. All were shot where they were sitting in the trees, usually in dense thickets almost impossible to penetrate; and this fact may perhaps account for so few specimens of this bird being taken, as quite half of those secured were found while searching for the nest of such birds as bred in the thick bush. On May 5, 1902, 0. W. Howard secured two females in some willows on the San Pedro River, fifteen miles from the mountains and an exceptionally low altitude for this species, about 3000 feet. The breeding bird mentioned was taken at about 8000 feet elevation; and all the others, from the base of the mountain (about 4500 feet) up to 6000 feet.
A. J. van Rossem (1936) found the flammulated screech owl breeding in the Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona: “At Littleshot Cabin, in the mixed oaks and pines at 7000 feet, a male was collected at dusk on June 6, 1931, as he was flying about through the trees. This bird was not at all shy and decoyed readily to a squeak.”
Nesting: Major Bendire (1892) quotes William G. Smith, on three nests found by him, as follows:
The first nest was taken on June 2, 1890, in Estes Park, Colorado, at an altitude of probably 10,000 feet. The site, a Woodpecker’s hole in a dead aspen, was about 10 feet from the ground and the burrow about 10 inches deep. It contained three fresh eggs. The female, which was in the hole, had to be removed by force, and in doing so one of the eggs was broken; they were lying on a few chips and feathers from the bird.
On June 4, I found a second nest about a mile from the former site and in a similar situation, a ravine near water. This contained two fresh eggs and an egg of a Flicker (Colaptes cafer). They were placed in a Woodpecker’s hole in a large aspen, about 8 feet from the ground and 10 inches below the aperture, while about 6 feet above this was a nest of young Flickers. The cavity appeared to have been formerly used by a squirrel and the eggs were deposited on the old nesting material. It also contained a few Flicker’s feathers. The female clung tenaciously to her eggs.
On June 20, I found the third nest, but this time at a considerably less altitude, probably about 8,000 feet. It was in a pine tree in a Woodpecker’s hole about 14 feet from the ground, and contained four partly incubated eggs. On rapping the tree the old bird flew out and perched on a limb close by while I investigated the nest. This consisted of a few feathers in the bottom of the burrow, which was about 10 inches deep.
Frank C. Willard (1909) took a set of three fresh eggs, on May 18, 1909, near the summit of the Huachuca Mountains, at the head of Ramsay Canyon, Arizona. He says:
The eggs in the set were fresh and were lying on the chips in the bottom of the cavity, which was twenty-five feet up in a pine stub. The growth at this point consisted of scattering pines and firs. The altitude was 7,700 feet.
On May 30 I started another female flammulated from her nest in a Flicker’s hole, twelve feet up in an oak tree growing in the bed of a canyon on the west slope of of the Huachucas, at an altitude of 6,000 feet. I left the two eggs and returning June 11 secured the full set, incubation well along. The bird left the nest as I climbed up, and alighted on a drooping branch near the entrance. I dropt down and, picking up my camera, secured a snap shot at a distance of eight feet, immediately after which she flew away. It was a very comical picture she made as she sat there, opening first one eye and then the other, like a sleepy child, in an endeavor to accustom herself to the glare of the bright sun.
Mr. van Rossem (1936) found a nest containing young, on June 9, 1931, in the Santa Ritas, in an old flicker hole 10 feet up in a dead pine.
Eggs: The flammulated screech owl lays three or four eggs; these are about oval, the shell is finely granulated and slightly glossy, and the color is white, with a faint creamy tint. They are about midway in size between the eggs of the elf owl and those of the Mexican screech owl.
The measurements of 38 eggs average 29.1 by 25.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 32.1 by 25.1, 30.2 by 26.5, 27.9 by 25.4, and 28 by 24 milllineters.
Plumages: Mr. van Rossem (1936) says: “Two newly-hatched young collected on June 9, 1931, are thickly covered with snowy white down, with, in life, the bills and feet flesh color. The irides, both of adults and young, were very dark, nearly blackish, brown: very different from the yellow irides of the common and spotted screech owls.”
Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1905) describe the “first full, but imperfect plumage” as follows: “Wings and tail as in the adult (last pale band of latter apparently terminal). Whole head and body with numerous, about equal, transverse bands of dusky and grayish white; the two colors about equal, but on lower parts both are much wider and more distinct than above the white gradually increasing posteriorly. Breast and outer webs of scapulars with a rusty tinge, the latter scarcely variegated. Eyebrow white, feathers bordered with dusky; eye-circle and ear-coverts bright rusty-rufous; lores much tinged with the same. No facial circle.”
In the adult plumage there is considerable individual variation between the two extremes of the gray and red phases, of which Mr. Ridgway (1914) writes:
The individual variation in this species is so great that it is somewhat difficult to frame a description covering them all. The variations involve not only the general color (extreme examples of the grayish phase being without a trace of cinnamomeous or ochraceous color, except the partly buffy outer webs of exterior scapulars, while extremes of the rufescent phase have cinnamon-brown and cinnamon-rufous the predominant colors), but also the size of the darker markings on the under parts, which may consist of delicate pencilings or heavy spots and bars. So far as I am able to see, these variations are utterly without geographic significance, except that the extreme rufous phase is, at present, known only from Guatemala, where, however, specimens occur which I am unable to distinguish from northern examples.
Food: The flammulated screech owl is apparently largely, if not wholly, insectivorous, though it may occasionally capture a small mammal or bird. In the few stomachs that have been examined have been found various beetles, moths, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, ants, other insects, spiders, and scorpions.
Behavior: Edouard C. Jacot (1931) says of the habits of this owl in the Huachuca Mountains of Arizona:
The pine trees seem to furnish the favorite perches from which the Flammulated Screech Owls call, and the Arizona white oak is a close second. They were also heard calling from sycamore, Emory oak, madrofla and thick oak brush, having flown into the latter on several occasions when disturbed and continued to call. The owl, in calling from a pine tree, is usually to be found about two-thirds the height of the tree, perched on a live limb near the trunk. In a white oak, the calling bird may be perched on the bulge of the trunk or near the trunk on a live limb, and at times well out near the twigs, but I have seen it only once on the dead stub of a branch. Usually, the Flammulated perches near the trunk of the tree from which he may be calling, and there may or may not be intervening branches between the bird and the ground.
In my experience, the Flammulated is the shyest of the screech owls at night, and is adept at keeping some obstruction between itself and the observer, although a given individual may not be consistent in this. It is greatly assisted in avoiding detection by the color of its plumage. The owl’s back blends perfectly with the hark of the pine tree, and the markings of its underparts with that of the white oak at night, so that it is almost invisible when it is perched with its back toward the stem of the tree.
Mrs. Florence M. Bailey (1928) writes: “The bird which Mr. Ligon collected in 1920 was at the time ‘sitting on the loose fine rock of a slide, under thick brush.’ On the Indian School campus at Santa Fe, Mr. Jensen found one sleeping in a peach tree in the orchard, and another dead under a light wire. One found by Mr. H. H. Kimball in the San Francisco Mountains was roosting in a road-camp ‘garage, made out of upright pine poles roofed with galvanized iron,’ in which a three-ton truck was kept. As Mr. Kimball remarks, ‘evidently it had found the semi-darkened interior of the building a satisfactory resting place during the day.’ Voice: Mr. Jacot (1931) says:
The mating song is composed of two notes: boo-boot. The second note is accentuated and louder than the first. This song is usually given at regular intervals so that it becomes monotonous. However, at times, when a bird’s attention is attracted, the song may be uttered at irregular intervals. The boo note is often dropped and the boot note given alone. At such times, this note may be considered by the birds as a note of warning. The mating song of the Flammulated Screech Owl is the most ventriloquial owl call I have ever heard.
The male, and I believe also the female, when apprehensive, utters a mewing note, very much like that of a kitten, and almost identical with a warning note of the Elf Owl. In courting, both birds make clucking noises, and upon rare occasions one of the birds (it was not determined which) utters a screech which with a little more volume would be “blood-curdling”.
Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1908) writes:
On the evening of July 15, 1905, at Bluff lake, I obtained an adult male specimen of this rare species. During the preceding two evenings we had repeatedly heard a peculiar note, different from that of any other owl we had ever heard. It consisted of a single mellow “whoot,’ repeated at regular intervals, something like the call note of the phainopepla in this respect. These notes began to he heard at early dusk, by seven o’clock; but on account of their ventriloquial quality gave little clue as to distance. Although far-reaching the notes proved to have been uttered really close at hand. By careful stalking the point of origin was located in the top of a tall yellow pine 200 yards from our camp; and presently a small bird with a true owl silhouette flew across an open space and lit in the top of a tall tree fully 100 feet from the ground. A charge of number 7 shot started it down and after a few minutes lodgement, it fell to the ground at my feet, my first and only specimen of the dwarf screech owl, and one of the rarest birds in California.
Field marks: The small size of this owl, the short, rounded ear tufts, the dark chocolate-brown eyes, and the prettily variegated color pattern of browns, silvery gray, black, white, and cinnamon are all good field marks by which the flammulated can be distinguished from all other screech owls.
Range: Western United States and Mexico, south to Guatemala. Casual in British Columbia.
The range of the flammulated screech owl extends north to southern British Columbia (Penticton); Idaho (Fernan and Ketchum); central Utah (Boulter); and northern Colorado (Estes Park). East to Colorado (Estes Park, Idaho Springs, Fountain Creek, Copper Gulch, Beulah, and probably Mosca Pass); New Mexico (Carson Forest, Santa Fe, and Haut Creek); possibly western Texas (Dog Canyon, Guadaloupe Mountains); Veracruz (Mount Orizaba); Chiapas (San Antonio); and Guatemala (San Geronimo and Duenas). South to Guatemala (Duenas and Tecpam); and the Federal District of Mexico (Chimalp a). West to the Federal District of Mexico (Chlinalpa); Arizona (Huachuca Mountains, Camp Apache, and Grand Canyon); California (San Gabriel Mountains, Monache Meadows, Bigtrees, and Fort Crook); Oregon (hart Mountains); Washington (Kiona); and British Columbia (Penticton).
The birds of the southern part of the range have been separated into a geographic race known as (Itus ftammeolu.s guatemalae Griscom, but little is known concerning the dividing line between it and the typical race to the north.
Egg dates: Colorado: 11 records, June 2 to 27; 6 records, June 5 to 20, indicating the height of the season.
Arizona and New Mexico: 5 records, May 18 to June 11.