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Adults are 15–17 cm in overall length (nearly 6 inches) and are gray, brownish-gray or rufous in colour. This owl has a round white spotted head, weakly defined facial disc, and dark upper breast, wings and tail, the latter quite long compared to other owls. The eyes are yellow and the bill is yellowish-green. The bird has two black nape spots outlined in white on the back of its head, which look like eyes. The mid to lower breast is white with darker vertical streaking. Legs are feathered down to the four well-armed toes on each foot.
The northern pygmy owl is native to Canada, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. Their habitat includes temperate, subtropical and tropical moist forest, savanna, and wetlands. In Oregon and Washington they are known to nest and forage in the center of dense, continuous forests, near streams. An example of their habitat is Forest Park in Portland, Oregon. Their breeding habitat includes open to semi-open woodlands of foothills and mountains in western North America.
Males will regularly perch at the top of the tallest available conifer trees to issue their territorial call, making them somewhat ventriloquistic in sloped landscapes, and causing distress and confusion among observers on the ground hoping to get a glimpse. They are incredibly hard to spot because of their size and color.