For the Birds Radio Program: Great Gray Owl

Original Air Date: Aug. 5, 1994

Summer isn’t a bad time to look for winter owls. 3:40

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Winter is the time when most Northlanders look at owls, especially ones associated with deep snow, like the Great Gray Owl. They’re more conspicuous sitting in bare branches with a snowscape setting off their plumage than they are camouflaged in the deep summer woods. But it’s possible, and more exciting, to spot one this time of year.

The best place I know of to see Great Grays is in the Sax-Zim Bog, that delightful boggy place beginning in Meadowlands and ending up towards Virginia. St. Louis County Highway 133 is a great road for northern species. Gray Jays and Boreal Chickadees are almost likely, and even an occasional magpie can be found there, especially in winter.

But the biggest treat of northern bog country has to be the Great Gray Owl. My favorite sighting ever in the Sax-Zim Bog was at dusk one fine day this May, when one sat only five or six feet from the road’s edge in a low tree. We stopped the car right beside it and studied it as hard as it was studying the ground below in its search for mice. It looked up momentarily to check us out, but we didn’t have any mice on us so it quickly lost interest and returned its fixed gaze to the earth below. After two or three breathtaking minutes, it suddenly dropped to the underbrush, grabbed a mouse with its feet, swallowed it whole with one quick bite, and then skulked, tail switching from one side to the other in a comically awkward way, along the ground until it found an opening where it could stretch its wings to fly up again. Although we were still sitting right there, it returned to the same branch, just a few feet away, and commenced searching the ground again.

I hooted in my best Great Gray Owl voice, and instantly it turned to look right into my eyes. Great Grays have a startling, wild look to their eyes, and this one seemed to be able to see into my very soul, but it didn’t study me for long—mice, not birders, were the order of the day.

For all their great size, Great Gray Owls eat little other than the tiniest mice. These huge birds are featherweights, weighing in at only two or three pounds in good condition. The most delicate spire of the thinnest spruce tree doesn’t bend under their weight. So big mammals like rabbits, skunks, and squirrels, that Great Horned Owls take easily are difficult at best for the Great Gray. Mice can remain hidden under snow in winter and under leaf litter in summer, but the Great Gray’s enormous facial discs can pinpoint the tiniest squeaks with accuracy, and the owls silent flight allows it to keep focused on the mouse even as it flaps in for the kill.

Our Great Gray continued to search the ground with patient concentration for several minutes, and we were held spellbound until it flew to another tree, just a bit behind us along the road. It studied the ground for a few seconds, but apparently thought the spot didn’t look promising, and moved on a little further. We left it in the enveloping dusk and headed for home. It’s satisfying to save for last the very best bird of the entire day.