Flammulated Owl (Otus flammeolus)


Flammulated owlFlammulated Owls are unique little owls with big, dark eyes and grey or rust-brown plumage. They are one of the smallest of North American owls, but have the longest annual migrations. ‘Flammies’ migrate hundreds of miles twice a year between breeding sites in the US to overwintering sites in Central America.  These owls are well-known ventriloquists and can throw their voices to camouflage their location. Adults are only 6 inches tall and are undiscerning insectivores, eating moths, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, centepeds and spiders. Their name pertains to a reddish or ‘flame’ (flammulated) color some individuals exhibit.

Flammulated Owls return from the warmth of Mexico and Guatemala every year in order to breed in dense stands of ponderosa pine, sugar pine and Douglass fir in the western US. They will breed in hardwood trees such as oak and aspen as well, provided there is a vacant cavity for them. These small forest owls depend on primary cavity nesters such as flickers, acorn woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers to make holes in trees for the owls to nest in.  Their dependence on primary cavity nesters and high nest site fidelity may make them less adaptable to dramatic changes in their breeding habitat.

Its preferred Ponderosa pine habitat has undergone dramatic historical alteration due to logging. By the 1990's less then 10% of the original old ponderosa pine forests remained. While being the major cause of habitat loss for the owl, logging is not the only cause for this decline. Other factors contributing to the loss of habitat for the owl derive from road building and urbanization pressures which fragment and reduce their habitat. A generally low reproductive rate also makes it vulnerable to localized or regionalized extirpation which is often exacerbated by a weakened habitat core.


Flammulated owls nest in open, mature and old growth Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine forests. This species depends on Pileated woodpeckers and northern flickers to create nest holes they can use. Almost all Flammulated owl nests are in snags (dead trees) and they may also occur in forests with mixes of oak, Douglas fir, white fir, incense cedar, or sugar pine. The Flammulated owl also seems to be somewhat colonial, congregating in breeding populations limited to one area with adjacent areas of optimum habitat having no birds present.


It is important to maintain enough large snags in the forest for this species and others that depend on snags. Careful thinning of the forest, keeping large trees and snags, improves habitat for Flammulated owls.

Forest Management that retains natural characteristics of mature forests, such as dead trees, large trees, montane hardwoods and meadows, as well as grasslands and healthy shrubfields can support Flammulated Owl breeding habitat. This type of management has been prescribed by the 2001 Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment (SNFPA) for pallid bat habitat enhancement and may benefit Flammulated Owls breeding habitat.


To date, scientists are uncertain of the Flammulated owl’s status. Its secretive nature and widely scattered distribution make it very difficult to gauge population trends for this species. The populations could be declining from both breeding habitat loss in the Western US as well as insecticide over-use in their wintering range.

Of the six Western National Forest Service Regions where Flammulated Owls breed, four (Regions 1 through 4 covering the northwest, southwest and intermountain regions) recognize them as a Forest Service Sensitive species, granting habitat protections and in some cases mandating monitoring each year.  California's USFS Region 5, with millions of acres of FLOW breeding habitat, tragically does not consider any effects of federal actions on this species.

Scientific Research

Hayward, G.D. and J. Verner, Eds. 1994. Flammulated, Boreal and Great Gray Owls in the United States: A technical conservation assessment. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report RM-253. Fort Collins, CO. (30MB PDF)

Reynolds,R.T. and B.D. Linkhart. 1992. Flammulated Owls in ponderosa pine: evidence of preference for old growth. In Old-growth forests in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions: proceedings a workshop. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report RM-213. (131KB PDF)

Supporting Resources

California Department of Fish and Game Natural History Information --This California state website contains rather limited and old information but is a good basic background composite for the species. Choose from a drop-down list to select the animal you are interested in.

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