One of the most notable field marks is the bird's diminutive size. Averaging 50-60 grams (about 2 ounces) and 6 to 6.5 inches long with a 14-inch wingspan, males and females are indistinguishable by plumage or size. Plumage patterns and coloration serve as a camouflage that blends with the bark of the trees where they roost. Reddish outer scapular feathers make the streak of flame on either side of their back that gives the species its name.
Flammulated Owls prefer many characteristics of old-growth forest and are widely distributed throughout the mountains of western North America, from the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges on the west to the Rocky Mountains on the east. The northern limit of their breeding range is southern British Columbia. Probable year-round residents occur in southern Mexico, and winter records place Flammulated Owls as far south as Guatemala and El Salvador.
Hunting at night, they eat insects including moths, crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, centipedes, millipedes and beetles.
Flammulated Owls are secondary cavity nesters. They depend on cavities originally excavated in dead trees by Northern Flickers or Pileated Woodpeckers. They lay only 2-3 eggs per year with relatively smaller broods than other small owls.
Northern populations are migratory, but details of the routes, timing, and winter ecology are poorly understood. For the past several years, HawkWatch International has helped sponsor Flammulated Owl migration studies in the Manzano Mountains of New Mexico and Nevada's Goshute range.
These owls use mature yellow pine habitat (Jeffrey & Ponderosa pines), the same habitat that is commercially valuable for logging. If we ignore what Flammulated Owls have to tell us about the destruction of this habitat, then we may well see reduced biodiversity, impoverished ecosystems, and desolation, and they will have been bearers of bad news. However, if we choose to learn from them, strive to appreciate them, and care enough to act responsibly for their well-being, they can teach us much about the world -- a powerful testament to their wisdom.