For the Birds Radio Program: Great Gray Owl

Original Air Date: Jan. 16, 1989

Laura wants to hear about your encounters with Great Gray Owls.

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Great Gray Owl

(Recording of a Great Gray Owl)

Of all the owls, the most mysterious- and exotic-looking is the Great Gray. This is also the largest of all owls. It has a disproportionately huge head, with large facial discs circled with concentric gray rings accentuating eerily small yellow eyes. The Great Gray Owl doesn’t have feather tufts like the Great Horned Owl. It can best be identified from a long distance by distinctive white throat patches which look like a bow tie.

The Great Gray is found high in the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, and throughout the northernmost parts of America, Europe, and Asia. It’s also known as the spruce owl, reflecting its preferred habitat. It eats a wide variety of small mammals, from mice and shrews through rabbits and hares. Crow bones and feathers have been found in its pellets, along with occasional bones from smaller birds.

Although the Great Gray Owl looks enormous, it actually weighs much less than the Snowy and Great Horned Owl—most of its bulk is in its incredibly thick coat of feathers. Pluck away the feathers and its scrawny body is only about the size of a Barred Owl.

Great Gray Owls nest in the Northland in small numbers. Birders can see them during every season in the bog area north of Meadowlands, Minnesota. Minnesota Power sponsors a successful nest platform project for them up here. They’re also occasionally found in northern Wisconsin, though they’re much rarer in the Badger State. Although the Northland is at the southern end of their normal range, and even though they nest here, most years few people see any at all. This winter is proving to be an exception, though. Every now and then the northern owls stage what ornithologists call an “invasion” from the far north, and this seems to be one of those years. These invasions are apparently triggered by a crash in the food supply further north, and, in desperation, Great Grays, Northern Hawk-Owls, and Boreal Owls move south in search of food.

During the past few weeks Boreal Owls, which are normally strictly nocturnal, have been found hunting in mid-day, indicating that they’re mighty hungry. And the many sightings of Great Grays and Northern Hawk-Owls in the northland since late fall have mostly been of birds hunting an area for only a day or so before moving on, again evidence of grave hunger.

Even under the best of conditions Great Gray Owls are uncommonly tame birds. On rare occasions they have allowed people to approach and even stroke them, and they frequently come right down when people release a rat or mouse for them to eat. But when the birds are in a weakened condition, as they are this year, it’s essential not to take advantage of them. Even if they don’t fly away, they are stressed when someone approaches them to take a picture or just stare at them.

Ornithologists studying these elusive visitors from the north are anxious to hear about all the owls that come down this season. If you spot any owls, be they common species or not, please drop me a line at Duluth Public Radio or call me at area 218-525-6171. I’d like to know when and where the owl was seen, as well as any identifying marks you might have been able to see. We’re uniquely lucky in the Northland that Great Gray Owls come to us in their time of need. The more we know about these excellent birds, the more we can help them in the years to come.

(Recording of a Great Gray Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”