Elf Owl breeds from the southwestern United States south to northern Mexico (March-August); these populations migrate south to southwestern Mexico, wintering from Sinaloa south to Puebla. There also are resident populations in south central Mexico in Puebla, and on the Baja California peninsula.
Before the 1930s, ornithologists believed Elf Owl could be found only in desert habitats, nesting in abandoned cavities in saguaro cacti. The habitat preferences of this species in fact are much broader; this species occupies semiarid wooded canyons, gallery forests, thorn forest, and semiopen areas with scattered trees (Howell and Webb 1995, Parker et al. 1996). Elf Owls can tolerate partly urbanized areas, roosting in fence posts and utility poles (Henry and Gehlbach 1999).
Subspecies graysoni, endemic to Socorro Island, has not been encountered since 1931 and presumably now is extinct (Wehtje et al. 1993).
Habitat loss has extirpated Elf Owl from northeastern Baja California and from nearly all of California and parts of Arizona (Cardiff 1978, Haltermann et al. 1989, Blackhouse 2008). Elf Owls were not recorded in the lower Rio Grande valley between 1894 and 1959, but have since returned, although habitat loss threatens them here as well (Blackhouse 2008).
Elf owls bones dating back at least 11000 years have been found in caves in the Sonoran region (Blackhouse 2008). At that time, the Sonoran consisted of evergreen woodlands and riparian forests, which has led scientists to hypothesize that this owl evolved in forest habitats, not the desert (Blackhouse 2008).
Fossil records are known from Deadman Cave in Southeast Arizona dating 6080 ± 250 years ago (Mead et al. 1984); Picacho Peak, Southern Arizona, dating 11,100 ± 300 years ago (Van Devender et al. 1991) and San Josecito Cave, Nuevo León, Mexico, dating 11,000–27,000 years ago (Steadman et al. 1994).
Molfetto, D. and P. Howard (2013). Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi), version 1.0. In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/nb.elfowl.01