I am Dr. Markus Mika, an avian biologist with a background in ecology, evolution, and conservation. For my doctoral research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, I traveled between southern Mexico and British Columbia for five years investigating the evolutionary history of bird populations, specifically small owls, using genetic markers. I worked on a Northern Utah Flammulated Owl project during the summer field seasons between 1999 and 2002 for my MS degree. After finishing a Ph.D., I picked up the project again in 2011, and have been gathering longterm nesting data on Flammulated Owls ever since. The main focus of my summer research is the investigation on how changing environments and climates may impact reproductive output by the species. In the past, I worked as Science Director at HawkWatch International, leading raptor conservation and citizen science efforts across the western United States. Currently, I teach in the Biology Department at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse. This summer, I will lead a group of people on an Atlas Obscura trip to help me find established nest locations of Flammulated Owls at my Utah locations for the 2018 field season.

Proof: https://twitter.com/atlasobscura/status/968966810086334464

Here are some links to information on the species, etc.:

Here is a video compilation I made two years ago of several releases of flammulated owls: https://www.reddit.com/user/atlasobscura/comments/80zmzu/flammulated_owls_a_video/

EDIT: Thanks to all of you for the intriguing questions and I hope you learned something about a unique and secretive bird species. I’m signing off for now!!!

Comments: 254 • Responses: 43  • Date: 

orchsc357 karma

Are small owls filled with an equal amount of rage and malice as their larger counterparts or is it scaled down with their size?

atlasobscura291 karma

It depends on what prey they consume. The Flammulated Owl feeds on insects, therefore it is less aggressive than other owls. Albeit, if I approach a nest with young the adults may be aggressive and dive-bomb me.

Mouler236 karma

Who flammulated them and why?

atlasobscura161 karma

Nobody did directly, lol, but they received their name from the flame like plumage (incl. color) that covers some of their flight feathers on their backs and displays a beautiful V-shape. Also that color is found on their faces a bit. Hence the name and how they ‘got’ flammulated. ;)

HouseCravenRaw157 karma

Do you ever refer to wet ones as "moist owlets"?

atlasobscura159 karma

Actually, that line is part of our field humor because as a matter of fact, I always carry a can of moist (t)owlets with me after handling birds, because you can’t avoid having them defecate on you when taking measurements and banding them.

schultjh78 karma

What's the strangest interaction you've ever had with a tiny owl?

atlasobscura128 karma

When I worked on my Masters observing nocturnal food deliveries, one male knew I was there and hovered above my head (3ft away) for about 20 seconds before taking off. It made my heart stop for a second.

Hexvolt34 karma

Owls can hover? I thought that was just hummingbirds and insects. TIL

atlasobscura85 karma

Yes many birds can hover, just not as long and as efficiently as hummingbirds.

schultjh22 karma

Oh! How long can they hover? How large are their wings relative to their bodies? Anything like hummingbirds?

atlasobscura43 karma

I never tested this beyond that one observation, but I suspect that they can hover for about 30 seconds maybe a bit more. Since they are migratory they have relatively long wings compared to their body size. Wingspan is about 16 inches and their body length from top to the longest tail feather is about 6.5-7 inches.

SalgadoPlantMD75 karma

Would you rather fight a horse sized flammulated owl, or a hundred flammulated owl sized horses?

atlasobscura44 karma

Haha, the former, easily. I could potentially deal with that...

hatsolotl72 karma

What is the biggest environmental threat to these owls today?

atlasobscura72 karma

One of the biggest threat that I see is that with changing landscapes in the west and drastically lower snowpack in the mountains, it changes the prey base (which is insects for this small species). I am testing the hypothesis that with lower snowpack, it negatively impacts breeding Flammulated Owl. Beyond that it is human disturbance during the late breeding season of this species with various recreational activities.


How do the flammulated owls lifespan compare to your average owl?

atlasobscura92 karma

Flammulated Owls have lifespans similar to other small owl species. If they make it through the first year, we suspect they live somewhere between 7 and 10 years.

David-Puddy17 karma

e suspect they live somewhere between 7 and 10 years.


Is this a new species?

atlasobscura59 karma

There are not too many researchers focusing on Flammulated Owls therefore it is difficult to study how long they actually live. There are only two study sites with long-term projects and following these secretive birds is difficult, but we slowly are obtaining enough data to estimate longevity.

David-Puddy12 karma

Do we not have any in captivity?

I get that that wouldn't really be indicative of their lifespan in the wild, but wouldn't it give a good ballpark

atlasobscura53 karma

There are very few in captivity I suspect because they are more secretive and less well known that other owl species. Actually, I don’t think that would help in estimating lifespan. Organisms in zoos generally live longer (in some cases dramatically so) than in the wild. The harshness of trying to survive often takes a toll on lifespan. Large raptors that often have a lifespan in the wild of up to 20 years, may be able to live 30 or more in captivity. That’s why using a captured bird may not provide the right answer to this.

FormerlyFishy45 karma

What led to your interest in studying flammulated owls?

atlasobscura80 karma

It was more the luck of the draw. When I was looking for a Masters of Science project and connected to federal agencies, this project was available and I jumped on it. My interest hasn’t stopped yet.

ApartTangerine36 karma

Do flammulated owls compete with bats for the same food sources?

atlasobscura46 karma

To a certain extent, but there is probably not a total overlap of actual prey items between bats and owls. I suspect that owls will go for the larger moths and insects compared to bats which are a usually smaller in size.

violet9132 karma

With all the fires in California there will be a push to remove dead trees and snags from forests. Do you anticipate a negative impact on these owls?

atlasobscura33 karma

The fires themselves may have an impact if they happen in their habitats. This species lives in the mountains therefore, only if the recent fires reached higher elevations, will there be an impact. Naturally occurring fires may be beneficial because of the potential positive impacts on undergrowth (shrubs, bushes and forbs) that provide a habitat for insects to feed on, but if the fires are too extreme, that might destroy breeding habitat for the birds who rely on cavity nests in snags and live trees. It depend therefore how severe the fires are, I suspect, but this is something I and my collaborators may start looking at particularly at or near our study site in SE Arizona.

powerscunner26 karma

Hello Dr. Mika. Thank you for this intriguing and adorable AMA.

I wonder, what kinds of environmental pressures select for such smallness? In other words, what is the advantage to being so tiny and cute?

atlasobscura27 karma

Thanks for your kind words! I suspect their adaptation to hunt for insect prey aided in the selection for this size. If there are enough insects in an area, the parents will stop by their nests many times a night, which seems to be a great way to raise the young and provide them with plenty of resources. If conditions are good, catching insects and being small to do so is a great way to be successful as a species.

Jededrrick23 karma

How do you study them? Do you capture them and tag them? Any GPS tracking? Or do you watch with binoculars?

atlasobscura31 karma

All of the above, I capture the females and young at the nest and the males with a net setup in front of the nest. We have attached geolocators that help us learn where they migrate to in winter.

Kiu_9823 karma

What's something peculiar about this owls and how was that discovered?

P.s: It sounds like you have an interesting & exciting life!

atlasobscura41 karma

Actually just last year, I discovered that when things don’t go well for a female trying to raise young in the nest, and all of a sudden her mate disappears, she may start feeding on her own young. It was a sad sight to see, but also explains how these birds may have to go to extreme measures to survive.

FelixGV21 karma

What is it like living in a typical flammulated owl family? Do parents remain together after mating? How many chick do they have at once? Any other interesting details about their social and familial lives?

atlasobscura28 karma

Usually many of the adult we come across change mates in subsequent years. They stick together for one season, maybe to, less likely three or more. They typically follow the seasonal monogamy approach, but next year they may move on. Mostly they only have up the three young per season (rarely 4, I’ve never seen 5 albeit I once had 5 eggs in one nest, but only 2 young made it). So they have small clutch sizes compared to other owls, therefore we are a bit concerned that when things change too much that would impact their populations. Interesting calls between the parents when they (or just the male) approach the nest.

atlasobscura1 karma

Usually many of the adult we come across change mates in subsequent years. They stick together for one season, maybe to, less likely three or more. They typically follow the seasonal monogamy approach, but next year they may move on. Mostly they only have up the three young per season (rarely 4, I’ve never seen 5 albeit I once had 5 eggs in one nest, but only 2 young made it). So they have small clutch sizes compared to other owls, therefore we are a bit concerned that when things change too much that would impact their populations. Interesting calls between the parents when they (or just the male) approach the nest.

rainishamy20 karma

How do you handle the CUTENESS??

OK seriously, I'm curious as to the personality traits you see, and whether you find yourself anthropomorphizing and what you do to keep that at bay (if you do).

atlasobscura29 karma

I admit it isn’t easy, however I have to try to stay somewhat neutral about the subject. One way of doing this is to avoid giving them names. Many people that come out with me to experience my work and the birds ask me if they could give individual birds a name and I tell them not to. It sounds a bit mean, but this helps me to stay somewhat detached from the individual bird. It is hard though especially when I dealt with a female for several years who carried a geolocator (device that helps us understand where they go in winter) for two years and during the last year I encountered her, in a nest about 10 km away that I also monitor is one of her young (happens very rarely), a male that is now successfully breeding himself and I have now monitored him for 3 consecutive years. This makes my feelings about his mother somewhat special. That’s hard to avoid but it also adds so much beauty to this very difficult and draining work.

MattLoh2o15 karma

How does one enter the field of Flammulated Owl study?

atlasobscura22 karma

Usually working with land managers or state and federal biologists who are wondering about the trends in their populations. They will look for experts to study these birds and that’s how I got set up to become experienced with them.

FelixGV13 karma

Can you describe the senses of flammulated owls (i.e.: night vision, etc.) and contrast it with other types of owls? Are they more or less perceptive?

atlasobscura22 karma

They have very good night vision, similar to other owls since they are truly nocturnal. They usually don’t hunt for vertebrate prey as do larger species, therefore I suspect that their hearing is maybe not as developed as in others, however, they still have excellent hearing which makes it difficult for me to sneak up to a nest without detection. They forage as gleaners, meaning the sit and watch insects before flying off and picking them up from vegetation, the ground, and sometimes from the air. In short, I think that they are similarly perceptive, but don’t have the keen hunting abilities of some of the owls who catch vertebrates.

FelixGV13 karma

Are flammulated owls apex predators, or are they prey to any other animals?

atlasobscura27 karma

They are most likely not apex predators and fall prey themselves to red squirrels and other larger owls. In a way they are more behaving like other insectivorous owls so in the food web, they may take up a spot in the middle to higher regions (if that makes sense). Definitely short of apex.

rosegold7210 karma

What is the most interesting experience you have had so far with these owls? Most surprising discovery?

atlasobscura43 karma

The most interesting experience has to be that some males that I call in watch me from just about 20 feet away when I set up a net to trap them, and as soon as the net is up, I play the call again and they fly straight into the net. Contrary to popular believe, owls are not known for their intelligence. That idea is a human construct. The birds are really good at what they do based on their innate behavior (genetics), but they don’t learn as much and adjust accordingly. They are not like magpies, ravens or crows who have the ability to think analytically. I hope that makes sense. I think we humans want them to be known as smart because of the position of their eyes...they kind of look human like, therefore we project intelligence onto that look.

randomized_botanist9 karma

How do you feel about the general public using callbacks and pishing to attract birds for better viewing?

What's the craziest story you have from fieldwork?

atlasobscura28 karma

I do have issues when the general public does it extensively, I don’t see a problem doing it once in a while to get a good look at a bird, but even then it can become problematic pulling the birds away from their daily activities at a high cost. In research for catching a specific individual to obtain data and reducing these activities to a minimum is what we try to do and what our handling permits usually limit us to do. Too many people overdo the call backs and the pishing. Therefore, use it sparingly. That’s my approach and suggestion.

I did my field work for my PhD in Mexico and one night, my lab mate and friend who joined me on an expedition to try to capture Flammulated Owls in the state of Guerrero in southern Mexico and I walked into a camp of some farmers who protected their narcotics crop. It was a scary moment and luckily besides their machetes, they didn’t have any flash lights so they didn’t dare running after us when we took off. Also in 2016, I had my second encounter with cougar at one of my sites during the day right after it had killed a fawn. I was carrying a aluminum ladder and that luckily scared the cat enough to let me be… but the cougar encounters are very rare. I did see some black bears when I traveled the American west to trap the birds, but that was about it on unique encounters.

BornaCat8 karma

Do you think that the changing climate will force the Owls to find new land? Will there be resources to ensure their survival?

atlasobscura12 karma

I am worried that climate change is progressing at a pace that may make it difficult for the birds to adjust to a new set of trait in a new environment, but maybe it may still happen. There may be some shifts in land use when things dry out and the birds may find more resources elsewhere… it’s hard to tell but a kind of terrifying thought.

BabylonBash8 karma

Asking for an emotionally unstable biology student friend- how does one get a job?

atlasobscura13 karma

Get as much field and research experience as possible, already as undergraduate student. Have him/her find a faculty who does interesting work and participate in their lab or field research. Then use that experience to apply for field positions or seasonal positions to advance the knowledge and expertise. That is the first step towards a graduate degree. Then it depends on what career he/she wants to pursue. If a government job sound interesting, a Masters is usually enough and almost better suited for such a move. For academia, a PhD would be necessary. I hope that answers the question and ‘stabilizes’ the friend or yours!

makenzie718 karma

Is “flammulated” a synonym for “adorable”?

atlasobscura13 karma

Not really, but I think it should be….haha. For the true explanation of flammulated check out one of my earlier comments (however, I may use this one next time when I have people join me in the field ;)

CheesyJokesters7 karma

What is your favorite part about the owls? What inspires you to spend hours studying them?

atlasobscura24 karma

My favorite part is that some of the females I encounter show some unique personalities when I handle them. Some are loud and hoot at me in my hand, others are all quite and play dead, one last year was propping up her tail as if she was a wren (wrens do that when they perch). I really enjoy learning their unique little behaviors. Sometimes it is scary, but I am inspired by working at night. The sounds of our surroundings is different and makes me aware of things I’ve never heard before. Every year it takes me a few days to get used to the night sounds, but after that I wouldn’t want to do anything else for a while.

GeeZeR_FroG6 karma

What is an owls favorite flavor of milkshake?

atlasobscura11 karma

I’d say strawberry or raspberry….or mothberry ;)

jacklyfe5 karma

Can you legally own a flammulated owl, if so where could one get it. If not why is that so?

atlasobscura9 karma

You can only have an owl if you are running a rehab facility or educational facility that obtains a bird what was injured and can’t be released anymore. You would need to show your expertise in the field of rehab or run an nature education facility so that the US Fish and Wildlife Service would consider handing out a permit.. Since owls are found in small population densities we don’t want the public to take them away from their natural habitats. It would be detrimental for the population if many people would want one of these birds at home.

schultjh5 karma

Do flammulated owls do anything outsized to contrast their undersized bodies?

atlasobscura18 karma

Yes they do. Great question. I suggest you google the call of one and then compare to the call of a Long-eared owl. They sound kind of similar and Long-eared Owls are quite a bit larger than Flammulated Owls. When you hear their call, they do sound larger than their size. That is a classic way for them to receive less harassment from larger predators and other large owls that may prey on them.

Ubarlight5 karma

Did you ever do any surveys in the Spring Mountains? I worked there for a number of years and camped under vocal flammulated owls a few times. All night it was just "Hoot." "Hoot." "Hoot." "Hoot." with no real enthusiasm behind it haha. Never got to see them, though.

atlasobscura6 karma

As a matter of fact, I received my PhD at UNLV pretty close to the Spring Mountains and yes, I did surveys for them near the ski resort and in some neighboring canyons as well. I didn’t focus on that area that much since one of my colleagues had done extensive surveys for the species in the area. However, good memories from my time as a graduate student! I did work for the Nevada Dept. of Wildlife surveying most other mountain ranges in Nevada for the species and provided them with extensive data on the Nevada populations. These were some great summers I spent in some of the most beautiful mountains (on most under-rated ones) in the west. Nevada is more beautiful than what the public thinks ;)

Ptr45704 karma

What's your favorite migratory bird?

Follow up, do you survive on coffee during field research?

atlasobscura17 karma

Probably one of the swift species that have the ability to stay on the wing between 6 and 9 month at a time (I’m not making this up), they sleep, eat etc. sometimes that long before returning back to solid ground.

YES, COFFEE is one of the most important field tools… :)

FunnyMemeName4 karma

What are the main predators of flammulated owls? Do other, larger owls eat them?

atlasobscura6 karma

Expanding on a previous answer where red squirrels and other larger owls are most likely the main predators of Flammulated Owls, there is always a threat to young owls right after they fledge and are vulnerable to predation. You’d have foxes, bobcats, etc. able to kill young before they are able to maintain flight. But that’s mostly for a short window right after the young jump out of the nest and have to hide in low bushes or can climb up trees to find safety before they can fly.

dinnerbasket3 karma

What's your favorite owl fact? What owl fact do you think others would find most interesting?

atlasobscura15 karma

One aspect that is unique to Barn Owls (not Flammulated Owls) that I think is pretty cool, is that they have a pectinate claw. This is a comb-like ridge on their middle claw/talon on their foot (see on this webpage: https://curioussengi.wordpress.com/2016/09/26/looking-good-part-i-pectinate-claws-avian-edition/) Scroll down to the owl picture. They use this to comb through their plumage and get rid of ectoparasites etc. That I think should be interesting to the public and many people don’t know that. They by the way share this trait with heron and egrets (two other bird species affiliated with marshes and other watery habitats).

biggiecheese293 karma

How do they poop?.... small, big, long?

atlasobscura10 karma

I’d say medium size fairly typical bird poop. Not as big as the owls that eat vertebrate prey. It’s pretty smelly, but again not as much as other owls. Typical bird whitewash (which is uric acid which is more crystallized and needs less water to process; they don’t do urea/urine which would dehydrate birds too much hence the white stuff) mixed with the blackish poop that is greasy, slimy...there I lost my lunch appetite...just kidding ;)

quita_19852 karma

In your opinion, can owls (in general -not just this incredibly adorable species) live good and satisfying lifes when kept by humans?

atlasobscura8 karma

I doubt that this would be a satisfactory way of life for them if they were healthy. I think for an injured bird that couldn’t survive in the wild anymore, being kept by humans is fine plus that provides an opportunity to teach the public about these amazing creatures. But unless that is the case, I could imagine that life in captivity would not be their first choice.

sixStringHobo2 karma

Do they make good pets?

atlasobscura8 karma

I don’t think so. They are not interactive and will do best in the wild. I think unless it was an injured bird in a rehab or educational facility, owls should stay in the wild.

Ro0Okus2 karma

Are owls the best?

atlasobscura14 karma

Hands down. However, I need to stay objective as much as possible to avoid a bias in my data collection. Therefore I like much of the wildlife, but admit that owls are quite impressive….and the best!


Flamulated owls are pretty cool. Have you ever studied their evolutionary cousins, the twitterpated owl?

atlasobscura2 karma

I have not...I suggest one might find one on Twitter??? Haha.

Merrick3621 karma

How many of these tiny owls have you kidnapped for your home? Because I would take them all.

atlasobscura3 karma

Haha, zero to be honest… and no offense but if I’d done that I wouldn’t hand it to anyone and I’d be in jail right now ;)

firefly6345-1 karma

How do i obtain one of these owls?

atlasobscura5 karma

You won’t since they are, like almost all birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty. You can experience them when you contact a researcher who allows you to experience them in the wild. That’s as far as you can and should go to ‘obtain’ one of them.