For the Birds Radio Program: Great Gray Owl Babies

Original Air Date: June 5, 1995

The only thing more exciting than seeing a Great Gray Owl is seeing a whole nest of them. 3:47

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One of the finest sights I’ve seen in my whole life was a nestful of Great Gray Owl babies in the Sax-Zim Bog north of Meadowlands, Minnesota. The nest is set tightly in a crotch in a big popple tree.

Great Grays don’t build their own nests–they usually use old crow or hawk nests, and this one seemed awfully small to hold the four or maybe five babies crowded in it. That was an unusually big load. Great Grays lay between 2 and 5 eggs, but most often 3. We had clear looks at four faces, and it seemed like a fifth bird was in back, though the huge bulk of their wings might have tricked us.

The first time I visited, with my friends Karen and Britta, the owlets looked at us with expressions that seemed like eager expectation. The mother sat on a lower branch nearby, and although once or twice she looked our way, she was apparently accustomed to visiting birders and realized we didn’t threaten her babies. That was on a pleasant, sunny afternoon, and the babies spent the time looking at us and stretching out their enormous wings. They did some preening, too. Baby birds are always itchy what with the pin feathers breaking through the skin and the flaky feather sheaths just begging to be broken to release the feather within. Owlet bodies look oversized compared with their tiny heads. Great Gray Owls weigh little more than Barred Owls–their hugeness is all feather, and since the head feathers weren’t much grown out yet, these little guys looked like pinheads compared with their mother.

Three days later I came back with Russ and our three kids. The babies were noticeably bigger now, even though they were hunkered down in the nest in the cold breeze and harder to see.

They checked us out the moment we arrived, but then crouched low for protection against the wind, making it hard for my kids to see their little faces. We only have one usable pair of binoculars for the lot of us, and the babies had turned away before any of the kids got a peek. The mother was sitting several trees away, her back to us the whole time, as we played a game called “Make Funny Noises to Get the Baby Owls to Notice You.” I tried my best mouse squeaks and Joey tried all kinds of junior high boy noises, but to no avail. I did my Great Gray Owl hoot, which usually gets instant attention from adult Great Grays, but this didn’t work, either. Finally, I tried a Barred Owl call. Voila! Two of them stretched up and checked us out again, long enough for everyone to get satisfying looks. Now my whole family is among the handful of people on the planet who have seen wild Great Gray Owl babies.

It will be a miracle if five babies survive to fledge this nest. At least three are big and strong, and in a matter of days will be hopping out of the crowded nest, clumsily getting the feel of sitting in trees. They have so little density and so much protection from their feathers that if they fall the landing won’t hurt, but they’ll be extremely vulnerable for many more weeks.

When they’re big, Great Gray babies usually leave the nest in the daytime and return to it when tired or frightened. Their parents will continue to feed them through most of the summer, as they slowly figure out hunting for themselves. It’s a funny thing about baby owls–the moment one looks into your eyes, you automatically start feeling some personal responsibility for it. So I’ll be driving past occasionally to check out my little ones, wishing them a long and prosperous life.