Historical Communities
Island Wildlife
First Nations Communities
Unique Landscapes
Vulnerable Ecologies


Northen Pygmy Owl on Central Vancouver Island

Pygmy Owl from the back
Pygmy Owl close up
Pygmy Owl eating some lunch
Northern Pygmy Owl in a den
Northern Pygmy Owl on the hunt

Northern Pygmy Owl

Glaucidium gnoma swarthi

The northern pygmy owl is one of the least studied and most elusive species on Vancouver Island. Blue-listed by the Provincial Government (special concern), its population is declining due to loss of old-growth forest habitat and forest fragmentation. Slightly smaller and considerably darker in colour than the mainland species, this species is very difficult to find, and where it is found, is rarely seen. Surveys are generally conducted by playing a mating call and listening for a response in the forest. Rough estimates put the population on Vancouver Island around 500 breeding pairs.


The Vancouver Island northern pygmy owl is similar in appearance to its mainland cousins. Grey-brown in appearance with a whitish underbelly, the owl is very small, weighing only 80g at maximum. Unlike most species of birds, it is the female that is larger, weighing on average 11g more than the males. Compared to other owls, its tail is quite long.

The owl is a secondary nester, meaning it cannot create its own nesting cavities and relies on holes in snags and stumps created by insects or woodpeckers. This property makes them particularly reliant on old or old-second growth forests for sufficient suitable nesting sites. Courtship occurs as early as February, and eggs are laid by June. The chicks remain in the nest for about a month, emerging by midsummer.

The owl is a crepuscular hunter, meaning in hunts mostly during dusk and dawn, and like most hunting owls, eats mainly small rodents. Songbirds also compose part of its diet when rodents are rare.

Vancouver Island Range

The Vancouver Island northern pygmy owl is thought to occur in very low numbers almost anywhere suitable habitat occurs. Sightings or call responses have been found widely distributed, including Cape Scott, Sayward, Strathcona Park, Clayoquot Sound, and Sooke. By far however, the greatest concentration is in the Nimpkish River valley, with 38 distinct responses to a call-playback survey conducted in 1995 over a 100km stretch of the valley. Of the 500 breeding pairs estimated to be on the island, the majority are thought to live in this area. A small local concentration also occurs on Quadra Island, just off of Campbell River.

The current population trend is thought to be declining. The first mention of population was in the 1940’s, with a local naturalist remarking that the birds were numerous in the 20’s, but was becoming more and more difficult to find. By the 1970s, the bird was considered rare but stable, and this assessment stood until recently, with increasing evidence showing their habitat and population shrinking.

Major Threats

By far, the greatest threat facing the northern pygmy owl on Vancouver Island is habitat destruction and fragmentation. As logging of the old and second growth forests continues, fewer and fewer suitable nesting sites are available for the animals. Their main prey items, small rodents, also become harder to find, as clearcuts generally are at first overrun by grasses, providing cover for the rodents, and making it difficult for the owls to hunt. Much like the endangered spotted owl, unless large areas of undisturbed habitat are protected for this species, it is likely to continue to decline, possibly to extinction. Their wide distribution makes them particularly susceptible to this, as even if 100 owls were left on the island, they may never meet each other due to simple geographic segregation.

Why they are Important on Vancouver Island

Being an endemic species, the Vancouver Island northern pygmy owl is part of what makes Vancouver Island such an ecologically special and sensitive place. Protection of species such as this will ensure that the Island’s unique ecological place in the world is retained in the long term.


Web site ©: The Institute for Coastal and Oceans Research (ICOR) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia Canada.