For the Birds Radio Program: Great Gray Owl (Original)

Original Air Date: Jan. 17, 1991 (estimated date)

The most bird for the least substance is a haunting presence in the north woods.

Duration: 4′07″


Of all the birds in the world, if one species had to embod y the northern forest–to conjure up mysterious springtime secrets whispered among swaying spruces, fragrant bog country sizzling with flies and mosquitoes, yellowing tamaracks dropping their needles to the spongy earth as they resign themselves to autumn, the endless nights of frozen brittle harshness, the fearlessness achieved through endurance–if only one bird could represent all of that, it would be the Great Gray Owl.

Every ounce of a Great Gray is designed for endurance against the harshest odds. This bird looks enormous–by measurement the largest owl of all. It’s up to 30 inches long, with a foot- long tail and five-foot wingspan. But most of that bulk is in the bird’s almost unbelievably thick feathers. Healthy Great Grays weigh in at a mere 2 or 3 pounds. In years when food is scarce, some may drop to a mere 3/4 of a pound. This compares to almost 4 1/2 pounds for an average female Snowy Owl. One nineteenth century taxidermist said about the species, ‘’Taken all in all, it is the most bird for the least substance we ever examined.”

The sheer bulk of the feathers sticking out from a Great Gray’s little skull might call to mind the ratted and sprayed hairdos teenage girls used to wear hack in my high school years, but somehow not only does the overall effect work better on the bird, it also keeps the bird’s head a lot warmer.

Great Grays sustain their tiny weight on small mice and voles. Occasionally they take prey as large as red squirrels and rabbits, and very rarely they take birds, but for the most part they fuel their metabolic furnace with the smallest of rodents.

Their keen yellow eyes with their fixed stare provide them with excellent daytime as well as nocturnal vision, but their sense of hearing is their greatest gift. A Great Gray Owl can hear and precisely locate a mouse underneath a heavy cover of snow–it plunges in and grabs the mouse up to 10 inches below the surface. His incredibly soft feathers not only allow him to sneak up on his prey unheard–it also allows the owl to listen to the mouse’ s every move even as he flies in–flapping with the noisy feathers of other birds would be as bothersome to a Great Gray as walking around in corduroy pants with metal binoculars clunking against a jacket zipper would be for a birder.

Although Great Gray Gwls can be found in northern Europe and Asia as well as North America, most of what ornithologists know about them was learned in this century, and most of it in central Canada and northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. The very first Great Gray Owls banded anywhere in the world were ringed on January 18, 11947, near Toronto. The man who has touched more wild Great Gray Owls than probably anyone in the universe is Robert Nero of Winnipeg, who wrote the book, The Great Gray Owl, published by the Smithsonian Press. Dr. Nero’s eloquent prose and engaging style, illustrated with fabulous photos by Robert Taylor, make The Great Gray Owl one book definitely worth reading.

Great Gray Owls are visiting the Northland in good numbers this year. If you would like information about how to find one in your area, write to “For the Birds” in care of this station. And let us know if you’re lucky enough to see one. Great Grays are Number 5 on the American Birding Association’s current “Most Wanted” list–we in the northland have opportunities to see birds that people further south can only dream of.

Although the Great Gray Owl is bigger than its weight would indicate, its bulk is no bigger than its spirit. Gazing into the haunting yellow eyes of one of these splendid birds is an experience that can enrich a lifetime.