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 band of second-growth in a formerly-logged city park in Portland, Oregon.
The fact that most of Forest Park, as it’s aptly known, was logged in the early 20th century and is now hemmed by human development doesn’t seem to deter the northern pygmy owl. 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 are often found in open forest or along forest edges, swooping 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 while they thrive in the complex temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, 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 at the edge 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 connecting Portland to the nearby mountains, making their home among coyotes, deer, elk, flying squirrels, falcons, bald eagles, river otters, frogs, bats, and hundreds of other species that manage to live near skyscrapers and highways, cafés, and cul-de-sacs.
Portland, Oregon, United States
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 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 www.kristaleelanglois.com or on Twitter @cestmoilanglois.