Spotlight Bird

2023 Festival Spotlight Bird: Flammulated Owl

By Ella Sorensen

Dwelling high in the mountains amidst the head waters of the rivers that flow downward to nourish Great Salt Lake and its associated wetlands, lives a tiny owl. 

The Flammulated Owl is so appropriately named; the definition of flammulated being reddish in color or resembling a flame perfectly describing the flickering splash of rusty, flame-colored feathers on grayish brown plumage. 

Many species of owls occur worldwide. Owls are familiar to most cultures present or past, their haunting gestalt often embedded into folklore and myths.

Most humans when conjuring up an image of an owl think of one of the large more observed species like the Great Horned Owl.   The diminutive Flammulated Owl, during the nesting season, flies between the trees of remote pine, fir, and aspen forests, obscurely perched, camouflaged on a limb, or hidden deep in a cavity, its presence so seldom detected by human senses that in the past, the Flammulated Owl has been considered rare.  

2018 Best of Show Jayden Harris 7-9
Original Art by Morgan Becker, 2022 Grand Prize
As often happens when humans jump to conclusions with partial data, today, through research this human misperception has been rectified. Flammulated Owls are now known to be common and widespread nesters throughout mountains of western North America and Mexico.  Some have suggested it is perhaps the most common raptor of mountain forests. 

A Great Horned Owl stands almost two feet tall. At less than half that size, the common Western Screech Owl is 8 ½ inches.  Flammulated owls are closely related to screech owls. Imagine if a screech owl were to be shrunk a bit to 6-7 inches, the ear tufts shortened, the yellow eyes turned to pits of pitch black and the plumage sprinkled with rufous feathers  you would have a semi resemblance of a Flammulated Owl.  Between the size of a robin and a sparrow, the Flammulated Owl is the second smallest owl in North American, only the Elf Owl being smaller.

To everything, there is a season.  All nature moves in rhythms and cycles, interwoven and dependent. Many owl species hunt by sound preying on both vertebrates and invertebrates.  Food is available year-round.  The Flammulated Owl is a visual hunter on a quest for insects, predominately moths, beetles and crickets.  When the chills of approaching winter lull insect activity the Flammulated Owl, in full synchrony with the seasons, heads south to warmer climes to winter mainly in Central America countries like Guatemala and El Salvador.  It is one of the most migratory of owl species. The wings, longer and more pointed than most owl species reflect an adaptation for their long migratory journey.   In spring, they fly north in late April or early May when many insects are awakening, in motion once again.

Although the owls are seldom seen, their presence can be felt and heard on a nocturnal walk into their territory in the early breeding season.  The male voices a low-pitched soft hoot repeated over and over with a ventriloquist quality lending an almost eerie resonance to the stillness of the night.

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