Be Your Own Birder

Weekly Bird: Great Gray Owl

It’s one of those birds that draws birders, that entices, amazes, and enchants, that we all hope to see. But once you see it (or even if you never have), how much do you really know about the great gray owl?

Great Gray Owl – Photo by Greg Schechter

Great Gray Owl Fun Facts

  • The great gray owl (or great grey owl, Strix nebulosa) is widespread in northern regions North America, Europe, and Asia. Because of that large geographic range, these birds have many different names, including bearded owl, sooty owl, spectral owl, Lapland owl, Siberian owl, speckled owl, spruce owl, cinereous owl, striped owl, and phantom of the north.
  • These owls are vole specialist hunters, but will also take a variety of other small mammals as prey, such as shrews, gophers, squirrels, chipmunks, weasels, lemmings, and mice.
  • Large and powerful, great gray owls can hear prey beneath the snow and can break an icy snow crust that is thick enough to hold up 175 pounds (80 kilograms).
  • Great gray owls are nomadic, wandering to locate the best food sources. This can also lead to irregular irruptions, when the birds may be spotted well outside their expected range, particularly in winter.
  • These owls do not build their own nests, but instead usurp the nests of raptors, ravens, or squirrels. They will occasionally use artificial nesting platforms that are positioned in the proper habitat, but do not often reuse nests from year to year.
  • During the breeding season, female great gray owls will eat the feces and pellets of hatchlings. The adult female will then leave the nest and regurgitate pellets of this material far away to help protect the nest.
  • These birds are the one of the largest owls in the world by length, with measurements reaching up to 33 inches (84 centimeters) long, making it the largest owl in North America. By weight, however, it is smaller than the great horned owl and the snowy owl.
  • The great gray owl is the official provincial bird of Manitoba, Canada.

Adding the Great Gray Owl to Your Life List

Like most owls, the great gray owl can be a challenge to see. During irruption years, these birds are more likely to come close to human habitation, and they will perch motionless in trees at any height as they hunt. They are most easily spotted at dusk and dawn in relatively open areas, such as pine and fir woodland edges that border fields, meadows, or bogs, though they may also hunt during the day. Attending winter birding festivals in northern areas, such as northern Minnesota, is an ideal opportunity to use experienced guides to help locate these elusive and distinguished owls. These birds can be very sensitive to disturbances, and birders should take great care not to stress or disrupt them.

Learn More About Great Gray Owls

These resources can help you learn more about these stunning owls…

Great Gray Owl – Photo by Nick Saunders

8 thoughts on “Weekly Bird: Great Gray Owl

    1. Mayntz Post author

      I desperately want to, but haven’t had the opportunity yet! I keep dreaming of a trip to northern Minnesota in winter for all those northern specialties, then I remember that travel is expensive and it gets really cold up there… 😉

    1. Mayntz Post author

      Having been born and raised in Michigan, I’m far from afraid of the cold – I actually miss it quite a bit! These are amazing owls, and I look forward to learning more about them with personal sightings myself. Happy birding!

  1. Willis Iannarelli

    In 1996 we had a large Male Great Grey in Rowley, Mass. For approx two weeks. Feb to April in 2017 we had what we think was a young female in Newport, N.H. I missed both of these greys both times. My dream is to finally photograph this beautiful bird! I am 73 so I don’t have much time left!

    1. Mayntz Post author

      Here’s hoping you have the chance sooner rather than later! They are such amazing owls. Happy birding to you!

  2. Kathryn Hodges

    I saw a Great Grey on April 2, 2021 at Sun Peaks Resort, British Columbia, Canada.
    I was cross country skiing on a smallish corridor (Black Bear Trail) & the huge bird came flying through, not far above me. I could see that it had something in its talons. It dropped a headless crow right in front of me. WOW!
    This was definitely the highlight of my ski season!!!

    1. Mayntz Post author

      WOW indeed! An amazing sighting and such an unusual interaction. Hopefully the owl did manage to secure another meal! He was probably startled to see you (which is why he dropped his prey), but it’s something you’ll always remember.

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