Topping out at just seven inches tall—about the size of a portly bluebird—this northern pygmy owl (Glaucidium gnoma californicum) is dwarfed by the plants surrounding it. Yet while the lush temperate rainforest may look primeval, it’s actually a narrow band of second-growth in a formerly-logged city park in Portland, Oregon.

The fact that Forest Park, as it’s aptly known, was logged in the early 20th century and is now hemmed by human development doesn’t make it any less appealing to the northern pygmy owl. It may even be a boon. While species like the threatened northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) require the high canopies and complex understory of old-growth forest to hunt and nest, northern pygmy owls struggle to survive in such dense tree cover. Instead, these diminutive owls nest in abandoned woodpecker cavities in open forest or along forest edges, and swoop through nearby meadows, clearings, lawns, and parks to capture unsuspecting prey. With songbirds comprising up to a third of the owls’ diets, it’s not even uncommon to see them hunting near residential bird feeders.

And unlike northern spotted owls, northern pygmy owls aren’t restricted to temperate rainforests. They also live in the aspen and conifer forests of the Rocky Mountains and possibly as far south as the deserts of Arizona and Mexico—depending on whether you count the nocturnal mountain pygmy owl of the Southwest to be the same species as the diurnal northern pygmy owl of the Northwest, which is a matter of great debate in ornithological circles.

Either way, pygmy owls have proven versatile enough to survive in not only a wide range of ecosystems, but also in places heavily impacted by humans. This particular bird was photographed just after fledging from its parents’ nest—one of five owlets raised in the middle of a metropolitan area of 3.2 million people. After photographer Gerrit Vyn made this image, the fledgling owls dispersed into the tendrils of wildness snaking through Portland, making their home among coyotes, deer, elk, flying squirrels, falcons, bald eagles, river otters, frogs, bats, and hundreds of other species that live amid skyscrapers and highways, cafés, and cul-de-sacs.

Oregon, United States

Gerrit Vyn

Gerrit Vyn is a photographer, cinematographer, and producer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and was the photographer for The New York Times’s Bestselling book, “The Living Bird.” Vyn’s photographs are frequently used by major conservation organizations and his work appears regularly in books and magazines, including National Geographic, Audubon, BBC Wildlife, The New York Times, and National Wildlife. He is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

Krista Langlois

Krista Langlois is a freelance journalist and essayist based in Durango, Colorado. In addition to her work as a contributing editor for bioGraphic, she writes about people and nature for publications including Adventure Journal, The Atlantic, Hakai, National Geographic News, Outside, and Smithsonian. Find more at or on Twitter @cestmoilanglois.

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