Pygmy owl regains federal protection

On July 19, 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl (Glaucidium brasilianum cactorum) will be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

In 1997, the pygmy owl became listed as an endangered species. But in 2006 the owl was delisted after a developer’s lawsuit ultimately changed how we look at populations of species that are endangered here but may be faring better elsewhere, such as in Mexico. The delisting removed protections for the owl, as well as withdrawing the designation of over 732,000 acres of Critical Habitat. Efforts by the Center for Biological Diversity have led to a revisit of that decision.

The tiny owl’s reinstated protection as threatened under the Endangered Species Act includes a 4(d) rule that prohibits the same activities as for an endangered species, but allows certain exceptions, including specific types of education and outreach activities already allowed under a Migratory Bird Treaty Act permit, surveying and monitoring conducted in Arizona under a state-issued Scientific Collection License, and habitat restoration and enhancement activities coordinated with and approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Critical Habitat for the species will be proposed in a separate rule coming later.

No larger than a can of soda, the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl is smaller than its name but has a personality as big as the desert sky. Biologists tasked with banding and tracking these owls have firsthand experience with their brave, aggressive attitudes. When captured for leg banding, a wide-eyed yellow stare never leaves your face while they slowly, with seeming deliberation, tighten oversized talons unerringly under your nail cuticles.

Once common north of Phoenix from New River to the Mexican border, by 2006 only one individual could be found north of Tucson. In 2007, just six pairs were documented in all of Arizona. Breeding programs have had bolstered that number to upwards of 30 or 40 birds four years ago, and pairs were re-released with some success – but captive bred owls face their own challenges, like learning to avoid predation from Harris hawks and other natural predators in the wild. The captive breeding programs conducted by Wild At Heart raptor rescue and the Phoenix Zoo, in addition to field studies conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department, have also taught us that climate (especially drought, winter temperatures, and humidity) have a tremendous impact on breeding success – and for these owls, poor conditions in one year can impact breeding success one to two years after the fact.

Despite these challenges, breeding and reintroduction efforts combined with habitat protection, thanks to the Pima County Multi-Species Conservation Plan and Altar Valley Watershed Plan, have helped the owl reach a population teetering around 100 individuals in Arizona. The pygmy owl became the unofficial mascot of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which addresses the needs of 44 different rare and protected species in Pima County. With the Plan in place, developers building in unincorporated Pima County will now experience less impact than the last time the owl was listed. By voluntarily complying with the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan’s open space protection and mitigation requirements, they are already covered under the Endangered Species Act.

Meanwhile, northern Mexico has seen a decline in pygmy owls over the last 20 years, in part due to the conversion of desert habitat to African buffelgrass. Habitat loss continues to be the number one driving force behind the owl’s decline in addition to habitat fragmentation and climate change. There is still much we do not know about their status, current use of historical habitat, and cross border genetics, or how the role they play in the environment relates to the roles screech owls and elf owls provide in the same spaces.

The pygmy owl has a simple need for the desert. They are cavity nesters and require the climate-insulated holes punctuating the arms of saguaros and thick-trunked mature trees in the ironwood and saguaros forests of northwest Tucson, Marana, and of the Sonoran Desert found southwest of Tucson and south to Mexico. Pygmy owls have high site fidelity, meaning they are very loyal to their nest sites. When they aren’t in their saguaro holes, they will perch on the lookout and then dive in at speed to catch prey. When a saguaro dies, the hardened shells of these cavity holes are left behind amongst the saguaro ribs like cast off boots.

With as few as 100 individuals in the wild in Arizona, pygmy owls continue to need protected desert open space, saguaros and mature trees to nest in, and assisted resilience to climate changes to once again thrive. They eat large insects like crickets, caterpillars, and beetles, as well as scorpions, and larger prey including small birds, rodents, and lizards. These fearless hunters have even been observed capturing mourning doves.

Pygmy owls are very vocal and quite loud, with a monotone call, too-too-too-too, in E flat, like the sound of a stuttering tea kettle or nature’s imitation of a car alarm. Females also make a rapid, fluttery call, in response. For so rare a bird, their voices sound comfortably familiar. And they are easy to mimic. Some birdwatchers will imitate the pygmy owl’s call to attract other small birds into view to mob the source of the sound in a community defense response. However, mimicking bird calls or playing back recordings, particularly during mating season, is a growing issue of ethics in the birding world because it is a practice that can affect the fitness and individual survival of birds reacting to these calls. Timing and context is everything.

There are many treasures of the desert: many sounds, sights, smells and experiences of its beautiful, prickly, teeming life that can imprint on your mind and soul. But the presence of the pygmy owl, a disappearing species with a fighting spirit, is one of those that adds a sense of the sacred. It will take new approaches and an all-in effort to help these little owls survive.

Seventeen years ago, a single pygmy owl perched above a road sign for Tortolita Acres along Thornydale Road. Today, the sign stands empty of company, but one can’t help but listen for that familiar call hanging in the air.

In the meantime, we continue to work towards a day when we will.

Read more in the News:

Protection Restored for Pygmy Owl | KGUN9

Native Sonoran Birds Listed Threatened Species May be Harmed by Interstate 11 Project | KOLD

Chair of the Pima County Board Addresses Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owls Threatened Listing | KGUN9

USFWS Renews Protections for Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl | AZCentral

17 Years After BEing Dropped from Endangered Species List Tiny Pygmy Owl Gains New Protections |

Listing of Pygmy Owl as Threatened Brings New Weapon to Interstate 11 Fight |