The Elf Owl Is the Smallest Owl in the World

Updated: Sep. 07, 2023

The elf owl is as small as a sparrow. Learn what these tiny birds of prey look like, what they eat and where to find them.

How to Identify an Elf Owl

Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi), adult, Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Tucson, Arizona, USARolf Nussbaumer/Getty Images
An elf owl is a sparrow-sized bird of prey that primarily feeds on insects.

At a mere 5 1/2 inches tall, the minute elf owl is just a touch taller than a beverage can. Elf owls are the smallest owls in the world and one of the smallest birds of prey. These are tiny little raptors, roughly the size of a large sparrow and none larger than an American robin (and weighing less than a golf ball).

If you are lucky enough to track one down in the southwest, its short tail and blurry feather streaking will help distinguish an elf owl from similar-looking pygmy-owls.

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Don’t let those adorable oversize eyes fool you. Elf owls are efficient insect predators. Moths, crickets and beetles make up a large portion of their diet.

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Elf Owl Range and Habitat

Elf Owl Micrathene Whitneyi Tucson, Arizona, United States 3 May Adult StrigidaeRick & Nora Bowers / Alamy Stock Photo
Look for elf owls in the southwestern states

This southwestern species summers in the southwestern canyons, deserts and riparian corridors from Arizona to Texas, breeding along the southern border states in the U.S. They migrate short distances and winter in Mexico from around October to late February or early March.

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Nesting Habits

As cavity nesters, elf owls will use nest boxes. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch program recommends building a 13-inch-tall box with a 2-inch entrance hole for elf owls. Attach the nest box on a tree or post, 6 to 10 feet high. These birds of prey also often use old woodpecker holes in giant cactus for nesting. Females lay between one and five plain white eggs.

Next, learn how to attract owls to nest in your backyard.