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Scientific Name:

Otus flammeolus

Population Status:

Least Concern

Body Length:

6 in (15 cm)


14 in (36 cm)


1.8-2.3 oz (50-52 g)

What makes a raptor a raptor?

Did you know?

  • The Flammulated Owl was first discovered in 1852!
  • The Flammulated Owl is one of the smallest owls in North America.
  • Most owls have eyes that range in color from yellow to orange - such as the beautiful Eurasian Eagle Owl. The Flammulated Owl, however, is one of the few owls in North America with dark eyes. The others are the Barn Owl, Spotted Owl, and Barred Owl.

Though The Peregrine Fund doesn't work directly with Flammulated Owls, our efforts in scientific research, habitat conservation, education, and community development help conserve birds of prey around the world. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists around the world gather and share important information on raptor conservation.

The Flammulated Owl is found in parts of North America and Central America, west of the Rocky Mountains from southern British Columbia, Canada through the western U.S. and into Mexico and parts of Guatemala and El Salvador.

During the cold winter months, Flammulated Owls living in the northern part of their range will travel south to warmer climates. This journey, though sometimes arduous, ensures these small owls a more steady food source all year round - making the trip very worthwhile!

No matter if the Flammulated Owl is in its winter or summer habitat, or stays in the same area all year round, it usually prefers to live in open mountain forests where such trees as ponderosa and yellow pines, oak or aspen grow, and where there is a healthy stand of brushy undergrowth. Even though this owl's geographic location is somewhat limited, it lives over a relatively wide altitudinal range from 400 to 3,000 meters in elevation.

The word "flammulated" means red in color, or flame-colored. But don't let the name fool you! The Flammulated Owl's plumage can range from rusty-reddish to gray, and most individuals are mottled with brownish streaks, lines, and spots that not only make them quite lovely to look at, but also serve another, far more important purpose.

Thanks to the cryptic patterns on its feathers, the Flammulated Owl, like many owl species, has excellent camouflage. Its coloration, streaks and spots can look quite similar to tree bark. Since they are nocturnal, or active at night, they spend a good part of the daylight hours roosting. When doing so, the owl often perches very close to the trunk of a tree and blends in almost perfectly with its surroundings. This helps keep it safe from predators looking for a tasty snack. So remember, if you ever find yourself walking through Flammulated Owl territory, though you might not see one, one might be watching you!

Now, if you thought you could perhaps find a Flammulated Owl by listening to its call, it isn't as easy as it might sound (pun intended) either. Apart from having terrific camouflage, the Flammulated Owl is known for being somewhat of a ventriloquist as well. This means that it can be quite difficult to pinpoint the direction from where its relatively deep call - a succession of "ooop, ooop, ooops" - is coming from.

Like most birds, Flammulated Owls have a number of different vocalizations depending on what they want to communicate, whether they are calling to find a mate, announcing their presence, or defending their territory, the call will sound different. When a Flammulated Owl sends out an alarm call, biologists have reported that it sounds like a kitten's meow.

Like many birds of prey, Flammulated Owls exhibit sexual dimorphism - which simply means that there is a visually obvious difference between the males and females of the same species. In the case of most raptors, this difference is in their size, with the females being larger than the males. Though biologists aren't 100% sure why, they do have some theories. One idea is that larger females would be better at protecting their young against potential predators. Another theory is that if the male and female differ in size, this means they must hunt different prey - females clearly taking larger prey while the males would be better at catching smaller, perhaps faster quarry. This would prevent competition between the pair and allow them to catch a wider variety of animals.

The Flammulated Owl is more common than once thought, but many researchers think this is simply because there are more people finding these owls and reporting their sightings. Some have suggested that changing habitats, and an increase in scrub vegetation, might have been a cause for this presumed increase in individual numbers, but this has yet to be proven.

Even though this owl is considered of Least Concern, meaning its population is relatively stable, and even though it is somewhat protected by its camouflage, as you can imagine, a small owl such as the Flammulated Owl still faces many dangers in the big, sometimes scary world of predator and prey. Other raptor species, medium-sized mammals and even snakes may all prey upon these small owls. Other threats may include loss of habitat.

The Flammulated Owl is a nocturnal hunter, which means it hunts at night. It will often sit on a comfortable perch as it watches and waits for its prey. This owl is an "insectivore" which means it feeds mainly on insects. In fact, it is probably on the top ten list of an insect's worst nightmare, because the insects have a very hard time hiding from a hungry Flammulated Owl.

These owls are experts at catching insects and other small invertebrates on the ground, in the air, or among the leaves and branches of a tree. They might snatch a beetle scurrying along a path, or a spider crawling slowly on a high branch, or a moth lazily flying through the forest. Their menu also includes such tasty critters as centipedes, scorpions, grasshoppers and crickets!

Apart from using their incredible eyesight to help find food, most owls use another important sense - their hearing - to locate their next meal. Flammulated Owls, like other owls, have asymmetrical ear openings. This means that one ear opening is located higher up on one side of the head, while the other ear opening is located lower on the other side of the head. There can also be one ear opening that is a bit farther forward on the head while the ear opening on the other side of the head is a bit farther back. The ear positions can be any combination of high, low, forward, and back! This helps owls better triangulate sounds, thus making finding prey that much easier.

And speaking of its ears, Flammulated Owls, like many other forest owls, have what are known as "ear tufts" - small feathers that stick up on each side of the bird's head which look like ears, but aren't. In fact, as far as we know, they aren't related at all to the bird's ears or its hearing. Many scientists are still trying to understand what purpose ear tufts serve. One theory is that they help to even further camaflouge the owl, breaking up its silhouette and making it look even more like a tree branch.

One set of feathers that we DO know helps an owl with its hearing is its facial disk. The facial disk is made up of a group of feathers around the owl's head that helps direct sound to its ears. To get an idea of how it works, cup your hands behind your ears and listen – sounds will be louder and clearer. Owls can raise these feathers slightly when on the hunt, allowing them to hear the rustle of beetle in the grass, or the scratching of an insect walking across a leaf. These sounds give away the location of prey animals, making it easy for the owl to deftly swoop in to catch a meal. Insects, beware!

Imagine you are walking through the forest and you come upon a large snag, perhaps an old pine or a Douglas Fir, with large crooked branches, and a solid trunk. As you stand at the base and look up, you can see, high up on the trunk, a medium-sized hole that looks like it was carved out by a woodpecker, or perhaps made when a branch broke and fell away. If it is spring time, the hole you are seeing MIGHT be the nest of a Flammulated Owl pair. Similar to the America Kestrel, the Flammulated Owl is a tree cavity nester and while it may use natural tree cavities or man-made nest boxes in which to lay its eggs and raise its young, this lovely owl most often uses holes made by woodpeckers or Northern Flickers. As you can imagine then, these owls are quite dependent on woodpeckers and flickers for their nesting success.

At the start of breeding season, the male will call to attract a female to his territory. Once paired up, the female usually lays from 2-4 eggs in the tree cavity. The pair doesn't build a nest or put anything inside the cavity. The female lays her eggs directly on the natural substrate. She does the majority, if not all, of the incubation, which lasts a little less than a month. While she is busy sitting on her eggs to help keep them safe and at the correct temperature, the male is in charge of finding food for her and for himself.

After the fluffy white nestlings hatch, both parents work hard to feed their young. In fact, when adults have baby owls to feed, they spend a lot of time hunting. As you may imagine, young nestlings need a lot of food in order to become healthy and strong. Biologists have reported that adults might go back and forth from the nest with prey close to 100 times every night while their chicks are growing! That is a lot of insects!

Young Flammulated Owls will spend a little over three weeks in the nest before they are ready to fledge, or fly for the first time. But even after they begin to fly, they are still very much dependent on their parents for food and for protection. It will take them another 4-5 weeks before they are able to hunt on their own.

According to the Idaho Fish and Game Department, Flammulated Owls can be found in suitable habitat throughout the state during the breeding season. In areas of the state where there are large stands of Ponderosa Pine, especially south of the Salmon River, the Flammulated Owl can be quite abundant with several pairs inhabiting just one square mile. Once breeding season is over and colder temperatures set in, these owls leave Idaho and head down south.

The visitor center at The Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey includes owls among its avian ambassadors. Though we do not have any Flammulated Owls, a visit to the Velma Morrison Interpretive Center is still a great chance to see owls up close and learn about the wonderful and interesting adaptations they have in order to survive in their respective habitats. There is also a touch table with owl feathers and other natural objects available for exploration.

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