Can You Keep Pygmy Owls as Pets?

Pygmy owls captivate the attention of people who watch them.

Unlike other owls, pygmy owls fly around during the day. Because people spend more time in the woods during the day than at night, you are more likely to encounter a pygmy owl than other species of owls.

Pygmy Owl

Pygmy owls will look you straight in the eye when you meet them in the wild. They give you a sense of connection that other wildlife will not.

Pygmy owls have nests full of chicks. Unlike the hatchlings of other owls, pygmy owl chicks all hatch at the same time. You may find a nest with as many as seven pygmy owl hatchlings.

Pygmy owls look something like small, fat robins, except for the absence of red feathers. They don’t have the oddly disc-shaped faces of other owls. They look a lot like songbirds. Many people find them to be just adorable.

So, what about keeping pygmy owls as pets?

If you are looking for an answer to the question of whether you can keep pygmy owls as pets, there’s a very simple answer:

No, you can’t legally keep a pygmy owl as a pet in North America.

The Canadian Migratory Birds Convention Act and the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibit keeping most birds and pets, and the state or province in which you live probably has additional rules about keeping “dangerous” wild animals.

In the United States, no one can “own” an owl. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has legal “stewardship” over pygmy owls and other migratory birds so they can make sure that these wonderful animals are well cared for.

It’s possible to become a foster parent of a pygmy owl while it is staying in a rehabilitation center to prepare it for future release to the wild, and it is possible to take care of owls in a breeding program or for educational purposes.

But there are a number of reasons you wouldn’t even want to keep pygmy owls as pets.

10 Reasons You Wouldn’t Want to Keep a Pygmy Owl as a Pet

A very few people have attempted to domesticate pygmy owls. They usually wind up surrendering them to rehabilitation centers so they can be returned to the wild. There are daunting challenges in taking care of pygmy owls that make them less than the best choice for keeping as a pet.

Pygmy owls aren’t cuddly

Pygmy owls don’t like physical contact. They are not affectionate creatures.

In nature, pygmy owls don’t pay attention to humans unless they sense that their nests are threatened. They won’t attempt to eat us, and they will ignore us unless we feed or threaten them.

Some pygmy owls that were kept as pets in contravention of US or Canadian law may investigate approaching humans in the hopes of being fed, but they pygmy owl’s standard response to people is “Leave me alone.”

When you get too close to a pygmy owl, or you encounter a pygmy owl that feels trapped in a barn, a shed, or even a birdcage where it attacked another bird, there is a predictable sequence of events:

  • First, the pygmy owl will attempt to escape by flying quickly.
  • If the owl can’t find an escape route, it will puff out its feathers and snap with its beak to try to appear bigger.
  • If you continue to block the owl’s exit, it will try to blend in with its surroundings.
  • And if all of these evasive tactics don’t work, it will attack you with its beak and talons.

If you aren’t wearing protective gear when a pygmy owl attacks you, you will be injured. Some injuries from owls have been serious, requiring hospitalization or worse.

Pygmy owls never give you a day off

Let’s suppose that somehow you tame your pygmy owl so that it does not attack you. You decide to give it a place in your home. You let it “imprint” on you, something in the same manner as a hatchling imprints on the parent bird in the nest as it emerges.

When you make a pygmy owl your pet, or you take care of it for more than a few days for rehabilitation, it “imprints” you as its caretaker. You become something like a parent to the owl, and it will resist attempts by other people to take care of it.

It may try to attack other people offering it food or trying to watch it too closely.

This means that your pygmy owl will expect you personally to be present for it every day. An owl sitter won’t do. Your owl wants you, and not some other human.

There are pygmy owl “owners” who have attempted to travel with their owls. They typically don’t have a pleasant experience.

You could put your pygmy owl in a cage for your trip, but then you would need a new license for keeping it every time you crossed state lines.

If you are traveling to states with quarantine stops like Florida, California, Texas, and Oregon, you are sure to be questioned by the authorities. They will stop you until you produce a valid license for keeping the owl in the new state.

Travel in a cage is extremely stressful for the owl, because owls of all kinds don’t like changes in routine. You can’t expect your owl to sit quietly in its cage while you attempt to avoid questioning at checkpoints.

Your pygmy owl will not be your friend while you are traveling. And for reasons we will discuss in more detail, it would not be a welcome guest at your destination.

Pygmy owls have a natural killing instinct

Owls are hardwired to capture prey. Pygmy owls choose prey their own size.

Pygmy owls don’t just eat insects and worms. They can capture, kill, and eat hummingbirds, wrens, warblers, and bluejays. They swoop down to capture moles and voles as they peek out of their underground burrows.

Pygmy owls sometimes prey on animals that are larger than they are, such as red squirrels and quail.

They cache their kills on long thorns so they can eat them later. If you had a pygmy owl in your house, it might store dead animals in a closet or your pantry.

Sometimes small birds try to gang up to attack pygmy owls. Pygmy owls have two black spots surrounded by white rings on the back of their heads that give other birds the impression they are watching them from the back of their heads.

It’s rare for other small birds to mount a defense against pygmy owls. This makes these owls confident killers.

Pygmy owls will play out their killing instinct even if they don’t need to kill to eat, even if you are feeding them.

In captivity, pygmy owls look for opportunities to use the talons and beaks. If they can’t find small animals to capture, they will attack pillows, blankets, clothing (especially down jackets), and woodwork.

They can be extremely destructive indoors, and they can do considerable damage to patio furniture and decks.

And, on a related note…

Pygmy owl beaks and talons are sharp

Pygmy owls can cause you serious injury even when they don’t mean you any harm. Suppose you have trained a pygmy owl to perch on your gloved hand. The glove protects your hand from the pygmy owl’s talons.

However, if the owl takes just a step or two off your glove and perches on your arm, you can experience a serious, bleeding cut.

If you are maintaining a home for your owl you might be liable for attacks by your pygmy owl on joggers, bikers, the mail delivery person, your neighbor’s cat, your neighbor’s dog, or children in the neighborhood.

Your insurance company is sure to scrutinize your claim.

There has even been a documented case of death by owl. In 2003, Kathleen Hunt Atwater Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her mansion in Durham, North Carolina.

Years later, forensic investigation showed that she died after an owl attack. The story has become part of a Netflix series, American Murder Mysteries: The Staircase.

Pygmy owl mating season involves a lot of all-night noise

Although pygmy owls fly around and hunt during the day, many of their romantic activities take place at night. When these owls are ready to mate, they will hoot all night, calling potential mates. If they have imprinted on you, so they treat you as if you were an owl, they will expect you to hoot back at them. Your neighbors may find this activity highly annoying.

Pygmy owls require specialized veterinary care

Even in the Pacific Northwest, where pygmy owls are relatively common, it’s unusual to find a veterinarian who has knowledge of how to treat this species.

Proper veterinary care for your owl requires your vet to know a lot about owl health, including the small changes in behavior that serve as subtle signals of health problems, how to provide the right kinds of perching surfaces, healthy diet, appropriate housing, what healthy pygmy owl droppings look like, and beak and talon maintenance.

There’s a lot to know about pygmy owls to keep them healthy in captivity. That’s one of the reasons states require specialized training for getting licenses to take care of these birds.

Pygmy owls are high-maintenance

It’s possible to keep a pygmy owl in a cage, but it needs a room-sized floor-to-ceiling cage to give it enough room for flying.

Owls have to be fed fresh meat or insects (crickets, for example) or worms every day.

Their roosts and cages need daily cleaning (more about that in a moment. Human-imprinted pygmy owls will demand constant attention as if you were another owl.

Pygmy owls are long-lived

Pygmy owls in captivity generally live about seven years. That’s over 2500 days of cleaning up bird poop. Larger owls may live as long as 30 years.

Pygmy owls produce putrid poop

Pygmy owls produce droppings like other birds. They also empty out their intestines about once a day. The resulting brown discharge is extremely odorous, and it stains the surfaces it touches.

But that isn’t all.

Pygmy owls also upchuck pellets of indigestible food, like mouse fur or songbird feather. And they molt their feathers all year long, thousands of feathers each year.

Pygmy owls aren’t easy to feed

Your pet pygmy owl would be happy to dine on the hummingbirds that visit your hummingbird feeder, or maybe robins, bluejays, or newborn kittens.

If you don’t want conflicts between your pets with tragic consequences, you need to keep your pygmy owl well fed. This means constant trips to the pet food store for crickets and worms, or finding a source of rats, mice, and rabbits.

You’ll need to gut the animals you feed your pygmy owl, or your owl will make a habit of hiding the entrails to be eaten later.

This really isn’t something you want your owl flying around your house to do. You’ll need to collect leftovers every day before they make a uniquely horrible odor of their own.

There is a way to get close to pygmy owls without keeping them as pets

Pygmy owls don’t make good pets. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be directly involved in their care.

Make sure injured pygmy owls get veterinary attention.

There are many pygmy owls who need help to continue their lives in the wild.

Pygmy owls can be seriously injured when they are hit by cars. Nestlings can fall out of their nest, making them at risk of being further injured by predators.

There are wildlife veterinarians who are very skilled at caring for pygmy owls and who have a variety of techniques that give them a good chance of going back into the wild to resume normal lives.

You can be the connection between an injured pygmy owl and the help it needs. It’s as easy as calling wildlife control. They have the right tools and equipment to handle pygmy owls safely so no one if injured and the owl can get immediate care.

Taking care of owls that cannot take care of themselves is the best way to bond with them and make sure they continue to be part of our natural world.

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