For the Birds Radio Program: Great Gray Owl

Original Air Date: Jan. 27, 1997

Great Gray Owls may be bigger, but they weigh far less than Great Horned and Snowy Owls. They eat mice, and very little else. And this year they’re surprisingly easy to see. 3:58

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Last week I was sitting down watching West Side Story with my kids when the phone suddenly rang. It was my neighbor, Mary Tonkin, telling us that there was a huge owl in a tree right next door. Sure enough, when I looked out, there were a bazillion crows yelling and shouting and harassing a Great Gray Owl, who was hunched down, trying hard to avoid their jabbing beaks. Moments after I looked out, it took off and flew right through my back yard, its left wing feather tips almost brushing my window as it weaved its way through the maze of Peabody Street houses and garages, trying to elude those angry crows. This was the first time ever that I’ve seen a Great Gray Owl in my yard, and after 16 years, it’s hard to add birds to my yard list.

Somehow, I was so caught up with Tony and Maria that I would have missed the whole thing if not for good old MarMar.

Great Gray Owls are popping up in all kinds of inappropriate places lately. One is visiting Grant Elementary School–a very urban school on a busy road–where a teacher there has been feeding it mice. And Great Gray Owls are one of the topics of interest on the Minnesota Bird Chat right now–these wonderful, wild birds with their enormous facial disc, unmatched and untamed eyes, and dense plumage are thrilling to behold for even the most list-focused birder.

Great Gray Owls are enormous, yet despite their huge bulk, they’re featherweights. While the slightly smaller Snowy and Great Horned Owls weigh between 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 pounds, the Great Gray Owl weighs a mere 2 or 3 pounds–and some that have been found emaciated and starving have tipped the scale at a mere 3/4 pound–no more than three quarter pound hamburger patties. Imagine that! If you see a Great Gray, notice how small the branches it sits on can be. These huge birds have relatively tiny talons, designed for grasping mice rather than rabbits. Great Grays are designed for capturing mice under snow–they drop in feet first, grab the mouse, and use their huge wingspan to push out of the snow again. I’ve held wild Great Grays on my bare arm that haven’t left a scratch, something l would never risk doing with even a tame Great Horned Owl.

Some people have successfully befriended wild owls that are hanging around their yards-­ especially Boreal, Great Gray, Barred, and Hawk-Owls–by feeding them. I somehow don’t think I could bring myself to go to a pet shop to buy live mice or gerbils to feed an owl, but would have no problem setting traps in the garage. You can quickly entice an owl to take a fresh dead mouse by loosely tying it to the end of a stick or on a long string and wiggling it along the ground. Especially if the tail waves a bit, the hungry owl will quickly notice it and swoop in and grab it. After playing out this scene a few times, the owl will associate you with food, and some will even learn to take it from a person’s hand. But make sure the mice are fresh, and died in a trap rather than from disease.

All owls are extraordinary birds, and Great Grays are perhaps the most magnificent of all. We are blessed to live on a planet with such wonderful creatures. Offering them gifts of food is a small gesture that won’t help owl populations at all, but significantly raises the chances of a few particular individuals surviving the winter. That’s good enough for me.