When you think of a “wise old owl,” what species do you picture? For me, it’s always been the Great Gray Owl. Maybe it’s that silvery plumage, or maybe its that expressive round face, but something about these large Boreal owls has always embodied the mysterious personality of the Strigidae family.
Maybe it has something to do with their size. Great Gray Owls are one of the tallest owls in North America, but despite this they are silent and elusive hunters; difficult to spot and sensitive to the presence of humans, these ghost-like ambassadors of the wooded North are the avian embodiment of the wilderness.
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Fun Facts About the Great Gray Owl
Great Gray Owls are some of the most sought after birds for birdwatchers, photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts. This is largely due to their limited population, secretive nature, and tendency to stick to remote habitats. If you’re lucky enough to spot a Great Gray Owl, you’re lucky indeed as these fascinating birds are strikingly beautiful. Here are some interesting things you may not have known about the Great Gray Owl:
- An impressive voice: Because they’re so shy and so quiet on the wing, you’re much more likely to hear a Great Gray Owl than you are to see one. Under favorable conditions, the Great Gray Owl’s classic “whoo-ooo-ooo-ooo” call can be heard up to 800 meters away. Near their nests, they may also be heard shrieking, growling, or clacking their bills.
- Asymmetrical ears: Owls are known for their impressive eyesight, and it is true that most owls are sight hunters. For Great Gray Owls, though, sight is rivaled by another impressive sense. Great Gray Owls have asymmetrical ear openings — their left ears are located higher up on their heads than their right ears — that allow them to hear sounds with such incredible precision that they can pinpoint the location of their prey based on sound alone.
- Lighter than they look: I mentioned before that Great Gray Owls are amongst the tallest North American owls. I chose my words carefully because despite their large appearance, Great Gray Owls are unexpectedly light. They typically weigh in at around 2.5 pounds, though they can weigh anywhere between 2-4 pounds. Despite appearing similar in size to many heavier owls, the Great Gray Owl is all feathers!
- Nest defenders: Great Gray Owls lay it all on the line when it comes to defending their nests. In some cases, they have even been known to fend off black bears! Despite this parental dedication, female Great Gray Owls will sometimes move on from their young as soon as fledging occurs. Dad, on the other hand, will stick around and feed the young owlets for several more months.
- Shocking power: Although they don’t weigh much, Great Gray Owls pack a surprising punch. Because they tend to live in cold northern regions, the prey they seek is often found beneath a layer of snow. Even hard-packed snow won’t stop a hungry Great Gray Owl, though! They have been known to punch through thick hardened ice strong enough to support a 175 pound adult human. They accomplish this by clenching their feet and slamming them into the snow.
The Future of the Great Gray Owl
Globally, Great Gray Owl populations are considered stable. They are classified as “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Despite this, they are endangered in some sections of their habitat. In California, the Great Gray Owl is endangered with fewer than 200 individual birds living in the state. Because they rely so heavily on pristine forest habitats, Great Gray Owls may be especially vulnerable to habitat degradation and loss.
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