The Flammulated Owl (Otus flammeolus) is a widespread but seldom seen western member of the screech owl family. At a height of six inches, it is smaller than the Western and Whiskered Screech Owls of the southwest.
Flammulated Owls come in red and gray color morphs as do Eastern and Western Screech Owls. Even gray birds show reddish feathers: a key field mark of this species is the streak of reddish feathers along the shoulder and onto the back. This "flaming" streak is what gives this bird it's Latin and common name. Another field mark of the Flammulated Owl is the dark eye; all the other screech owls have yellow eyes.
The call of the Flammulated Owl is a low single or double hoot, often described as being ventriloquial in character. This makes it very difficult to locate a calling bird, which is usually much closer to the searcher than expected. The "dead bark" nature of it's plumage also contributes to the owl's ability to remain undiscovered, even where it is abundant.
The Flammulated Owl breeds from northwestern Canada in British Columbia, south through the mountains of the western United States (eastern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas), and south of the border into Mexico and even Guatemala. Over this range, the color of the owl tends to range from grayish in the north to reddish in the south.
The Flammulated Owl migrates out of its northern territory in the colder months, spending the winter south of the U.S. border, or at least this is the most popular belief. Some have suggested that it may actually hibernate, as do some Poorwills, a close relative of the owls, but there is little or no evidence that this is the case.
The Flammulated Owl is closely tied to ponderosa pine forests throughout its range, although it is also found in pine-oak forests. In migration, it can be found in other habitats, as demonstrated by the photo taken at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Tempe.
In Arizona, this bird can be found both to the north and the south of the Phoenix area. According to The Birds of Arizona, the Flammulated Owl is an "abundant summer resident in most of the Transition Zone, particularly where oaks are present...The species is not found in cut-over forest nor in pure stands of ponderosa pine; it requires some undergrowth or intermixture of oaks in the forest...It is also common in fir and spruce forests, at least in the Pinaleno and Santa Catalina Mountains, and in aspens on Pinal Peak." Noted nature photographer Art Wolfe suggests looking for this bird in the trees immediately next to the Park Headquarters at the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
The Flammulated Owl is nocturnal, and roosts in tree cavities such as old woodpecker holes or in dense foliage. It lays it's 2-4 eggs in early May to late June. It feeds almost exclusively on insects, especially moths which it catches in flight with beak or claw, much like a nocturnal flycatcher. This dependence on insects is likely the reason these owls must migrate south in the colder seasons when insect activity virtually stops.
The accompanying photo was taken on October 6, 1996, at the Desert Botanical Gardens, with a Nikon 8008 camera, Nikkor EDIF 400mm f/5.6 lens, on Fujichrome Sensia 400 film. The bird sat quietly in the canopy of a tree near the auditorium, where it was viewed by many local birders. Even knowing where the owl was sitting, it was very difficult to actually see the bird due to its cryptic plumage and choice of roosting spot.