This is one of the largest owls found in the world, and is the largest owl in North America. It is known by several names including the Phantom of the North, cinereous owl, Lapland owl, spruce owl, sooty owl and bearded owl. In captivity, this owl is known to reach up to 40 years of age, which is a long life span for a bird. In the wild, the life span is not as good, largely due to starvation and predators, including Great Horned owls, wolverines and martens. And of course, the other main predator is a human, whether it is through accidental shooting or traffic incidents.
As mentioned, this owl is very big in comparison to other owls. A lot of this size is due to the feathers, larger head and long tail. On average, the male can reach a length up to 33″ (84 cm) , and up to 28″ (72 cm) for the females. The wingspan is around 55″ (140) cm for males, and 56″ (142 cm) for the females. Like many of the other owl species, the males are often smaller than the females, especially in weight, with the female averaging around 3 LBS. (1,290 g) and the males 2 – 1/4 LBS (1,000 g).
This owl also has the largest facial disc of any of the raptor species. Their faces are grey, and they have darker circles around their bright yellow eyes. Unlike most owls, the Great Grey doesn’t have tufts in its ears. An interesting feature is that the densely fluffy feathers create almost no sound during flight, making the owl a silent predator.
The Great Grey Owl typically feeds on small animals such as rodents. They have incredible hearing, and they use their facial disk to channel the sounds made by moving prey to their ears. They hunt during the time of day when the light is low, such as late in the evening, or in the early hours of the morning. Incredibly this owl can locate prey under up to 24″ (60 cm) of snow with their sense of hearing. They will then plunge through the snow to get to their prey, which is often referred to as ‘snow-plunging’.
The courtship between male and female Great Grey Owls is almost romantic. The male owl will approach the female with the offering of food in his beak. Whilst they both have their eyes closed, this food is passed between the two of them. Then, the job of locating a possible nest site is left up to the male. The female can be a bit fussy, and she may refuse several sites until she decides on the right one. The sites they usually choose for nesting include stick nests created by hawks, crows or ravens that are often found in the hollowed out top of a tree stump.
The average number of eggs laid by a female is three, and each one is laid a day or two apart from the other. The incubation period lasts around 28 days, and it is the female that incubates the eggs while the male hunts for the food. Once the chicks have hatched, the male continues to provide food for the female and the young. By the time they are 3-4 weeks old, the young can leave the nest and are able to climb.
The young will stay near the nest and be taken care of by the female for several months after leaving the nest. These owls are single-brooded, which means they raise one clutch of young at a time. If the clutch or brood is lost, they will sometimes lay a replacement clutch. Despite the male defending the nest rather aggressively, predators like the Great Horned Owl is still a major threat to the eggs.
Back in 2010, it was discovered that the Great Grey Owls located in Sierra Nevada were genetically different to the other Great Grey Owls. This subspecies also display differences in their habits, including their preference in prey, migration patterns and selection of nesting sites. The scientists believe that this is due to the two lots of Great Grey Owls being isolated from each other for a very extensive length of time.
As well as North America and Sierra Nevada, Great Grey Owls can also be found in Canada, Alaska, Northern Europe and Asia. They generally live in forested areas that have an open meadow nearby for hunting. The majority of these owls don’t migrate unless there is a severe shortage of food.
The biggest threat to the survival of this species is deforestation and logging practices. The owls need the trees and branches for every aspect of their lifestyle, from hunting, perching, breeding, learning to fly and resting. Reforestation programs and protection of forest growth is one way that is being employed to help protect this species.
Since 1980, the Great Grey Owl has been on the California Endangered Species list, and it is believed there is only around 200-300 of these owls left in the state of California. Approximately 65% of these are found in Yosemite, which provides the kind of habitat they require. The Great Grey Owl is also listed as an ‘at risk’ species by the Washington Gap Analysis Project.
Various steps have been taken to try and protect this magnificent bird, including the suspension of logging and lumber operations near nesting areas. This has helped to increase the stability of the species, but unfortunately, the numbers have still not increased significantly.
Another factor that affects the survival of these owls is the availability of food sources. This can be threatened by the lumber industry, and by the grazing of cattle. When there are a lot of cattle in an area, this can drive away the rodents and voles the owls need to feed on, reducing the supply of food. Forest areas that are close to highways are also a large risk to the owls, as they tend to fly low, or feed off animals on the road, leading them to be prone to being struck by vehicles and killed.
This species of owl is truly majestic to look at, both when sitting and in flight. With an incredible face and a large appearance, they are truly unique amongst other species of owl. Protecting them from the environment, and particularly from man, is vital for ensuring these owls continue to survive in the wild.