Flammulated owl (Psiloscops flammeolus)

Category: Birds
State status: Candidate
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)


If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Providing detailed information such as a photo and exact coordinates will improve the confidence and value of this observation to WDFW species conservation and management.

The Washington population of flammulated owl is low and trend is unknown. These owls inhabit dry montane forests of eastern Washington and are probably impacted by habitat loss and degradation as well as by fire suppression in these landscapes.

Description and Range

Physical description

The flammulated owl is a small (6 to 7 inches long) dark-eyed owl, more often heard than seen. They have small ear tufts. There is a red and a gray plumage phase of this owl. Flammulated owls are known for their hollow-sounding, single or paired hoots.

Ecology and life history

The flammulated owl is most strongly associated with mid- and late-seral ponderosa pine forests with an open canopy cover, a presence of large (greater or equal to 20 inches) cavity trees or snags, and at least some areas of dense foliage (perhaps used as protective cover) within an otherwise generally open understory. For nesting, they generally prefer larger cavities excavated by pileated woodpecker or northern flicker, or occasionally a natural cavity of appropriate size.

An adult flammulated owl, in a tree cavity, is looking out with its eyelids partly closed.
Photo by John Villella - Creative Commons Public Domain
​A flammulated owl in a cavity of a ponderosa pine. ​

The flammulated owl is the only Neotropical migrant owl in North America. It breeds in western North America and migrates to Mexico and Guatemala. In Washington, it is found in dry forests where pairs occupy small territories. The species has a low annual rate of reproduction. Rates of nest success and productivity in Washington are not known.

Prey items are generally dominated by insects, including moths.

The maximum recorded longevity of a flammulated owl in the wild is about seven to eight years.

Geographic range

The flammulated owl appears to be uncommon and is found in ponderosa pine and other dry forest regions on the eastern slope of the Cascade Range, the Kettle Range, Selkirk Mountains, and Blue Mountains. Surveys conducted in Washington found the species most often in ponderosa pine and dry Douglas-fir forests, but also in other forest types. Studies from other parts of the species’ range have concluded the species may be somewhat more common than originally thought. The size of Washington’s breeding population is unknown.

For a map of range-wide distribution and conservation status of this species, check out NatureServe Explorer.

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change


Flammulated owls may be sensitive to temperature and moisture; upper limits of owl occupancy may be set by low nocturnal temperatures or high humidity while lower limits may be set by high diurnal temperatures or high humidity. In addition, changes in temperature may alter the availability of primary prey species (e.g., insects), which may influence their distribution. Flammulated owls are habitat specialists, requiring old-growth ponderosa pine and/or Douglas-fir stands, making them vulnerable to changes in habitat extent and quality due to shifting wildfire regimes, precipitation changes, and habitat loss or degradation.

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change


  • Increased temperatures
  • Changes in precipitation
  • Altered fire regimes
Confidence: Moderate


This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.
This species is identified as a Priority Species under WDFW's Priority Habitat and Species Program. Priority species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance. The PHS program is the agency's main means of sharing fish and wildlife information with local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect priority habitats for land use planning.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

  • Fish and wildlife habitat loss or degradation
    • Threat: Effects of fire suppression.
    • Action Needed: Develop and implement dry forest management and restoration programs.
  • Agriculture side effects 
    • Threat: Loss of ponderosa pine forest (and other dry forest) and nest cavities by either fire, live tree harvest or dead trees for firewood. Decreasing lepidopteran insect prey (butterflies, moths, and skippers) due to use of pesticides in forest management.
    • Actions Needed: Promote protection and effective management of dry forests using a variety of tools including prescriptive management that retains adequate numbers and diameters of large (≥20 inches) snags and live trees for future recruitment. 

See the Climate vulnerability section for information about the threats posed by climate change to this species.



Buchanan, J. B. 2005. Flammulated Owl (Otus flammeolus). Pp 211-212 in T. R. Wahl, B. Tweit, and S. G. Mlodinow (eds.) Birds of Washington: Status and Distribution. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR, USA. 436 pp.

Linkhart, B. D. and D. A. McCallum (2020). Flammulated Owl (Psiloscops flammeolus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.flaowl.01

McCallum, D. A. 1994. Flammulated Owl (Otus flammeolus). The Birds of North America 93:1-24.

WDFW publications

PHS Program

Other resources