Unmistakable due to their sheer size, great gray owls are the largest North American owls in terms of size but not the heaviest. This honor goes to the snowy owl, which is on average at least 10 cm shorter in length and more than 1 kg heavier.
Great gray owls are instantly recognizable and not easily confused with any other owl species, due to their extra large stature and distinctive facial patterning.
As their name suggests, their plumage consists of a large amount of gray, with white and brown patterning across the wings, back, belly, and breast. Wings are barred with lighter gray, darker gray, and some brown, with pale gray streaking, and the breast and belly have fine dark barring and are overall mottled with gray and brown. Their long tail is rounded and barred with brown, gray, and white.
The facial disc of a great gray owl is the largest of any owl species and features concentric gray and dark brown rings around the eyes, which are bright yellow and look relatively small, topped with strong white eyebrows. The bill is yellow, with a black patch immediately below, and a white collar is visible between the face and the neck.
Females and males are alike in plumage, but larger in all aspects than males.
Juvenile great gray owls are not as vividly marked as adults and have a more cryptic appearance, with mottled shades of gray and white, and develop a more adult-like plumage after 5 months.
Great Gray Owl adult
Juvenile Great Gray Owl
Great gray owls are undeniably large and powerful, but in terms of body mass, they trail behind the snowy owl and great horned owl, with much of their dense plumage accounting for much of their bulky size.
Female great gray owls are normally larger than males, and heavier too.
Great Gray Owl in-flight hunting in woodland
An evenly spaced series of whoo notes is used by both male and female great gray owls as a territorial call, with the male’s voice deeper in pitch than the female’s. Double hoots are used as a contact call between mates. A chattering cry is heard when the nest site is threatened or when intruders are sensed.
Great Gray Owl hooting from behind a tree
Small mammals are the primary prey of great gray owls, which are experts at catching rodents even when deep snow covers the ground.
Voles, pocket gophers, shrews, red and flying squirrels, mice, lemmings, weasels, and chipmunks are the most commonly caught prey. Birds are also taken but do not represent as important a share as mammals, with ducks, grouse, and songbirds.
Although most hunting is done during darkness, males may forage during the daytime in the breeding season to keep up with the demands of feeding hungry young.
Great gray owl chicks feed on whatever the male parent brings to the nest, which varies according to location but is frequently small voles, shrews, and pocket gophers. Initially, the female will shred the prey into pieces small enough for the young to swallow, but gradually young great gray owl chicks master the art of swallowing prey whole.
Great Gray Owl hunting during the winter months
Dense coniferous forests are the preferred habitat of great gray owls, particularly those that contain a mix of old-growth trees and younger plantations. Nearby meadows, marshes, and swamps offer important hunting grounds, as they normally have abundant populations of voles, mice, and other small mammals.
The primary range of great gray owls extends across the northern hemisphere, encompassing much of western, central, and southern Canada, parts of the northwestern US, and northern Eurasia, from Finland eastwards through Russia, Mongolia, and northeastern China.
In winter, occasional irruptions further south occur and nomadic wanderings may take some individuals outside of their regular breeding territories.
The overall global population of great gray owls is thought to be around 80,000 mature individuals, with around 38,000 of these resident in North America, and up to 19,900 in Europe.
Sightings of great gray owls are relatively uncommon, due to their nocturnal behavior, effectively camouflaged plumage, and preference for dense coniferous forests. However, they are not a particularly rare species and are widespread across forested landscapes of the northern hemisphere.
Montana’s Glacier National Park and the Bitterroot Valley are known for their great gray owl populations. Similarly, sightings are also regularly reported in Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains and the Panhandle region. To the west, great gray owls are also occasionally spotted at Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, in Washington.
Great gray owls are widespread across much of western and central Canada, and a visit to any densely forested landscape in this region may reward you with a sighting.
The forests and meadows of Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba offer a particularly decent chance of spotting a great gray owl. Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park is known for its diverse resident wildlife, including great gray owls.
Great Gray Owl in meadow landscape
First-time breeding is possible at one year of age, but rare. Young great gray owls usually breed for the first time at three years old, but occasionally will raise a successful brood at two years of age.
On average, the lifespan of a great gray owl in the wild is around 9 to 10 years, but individuals can live as long as 13 to 15 years, or in captivity for at least 27 years.
Great horned owls and ravens are both known to predate nests and take young birds. Great horned owls will also hunt adult great gray owls.
Great gray owls are included in CITES Appendix II, which legislates trade. In the US, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 makes it illegal to kill, trap, injure, or trade great gray owls without a license. A similar law in Canada, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, offers the same level of protection to great gray owls in Canada.
Currently classed as a species of least concern, there are no immediate or current threats to the future survival of great gray owls, and their population is secure and increasing.
Great Gray Owl perching on top of a white fence
Unlike many other owl species, great gray owls do not nest in cavities, perhaps due to their vast size. Instead, they reuse old nest platforms abandoned by other birds that are bulky and strong enough to support them. The old nests of ospreys, ravens and goshawks - and even squirrels - are ideal.
Large snags – standing dead trees with broken tops – are also used. Nests are flat, to offer good visibility, and no additional material is added, although a depression is usually created by the female as a nest bowl before she starts laying.
In some regions, conservation projects are in place that aim to boost and manage populations of great gray owls, and artificial nest platforms have been introduced and successfully used to raise young.
Pairs form from early January onwards, and the important job of nest prospecting takes place over the course of three to four weeks before a final choice is made and eggs are laid. The peak months for eggs in North America are late March to early May.
Only female great gray owls incubate and are brought prey to the nest by their mate. Eggs hatch after 28 to 36 days, and young continue to be brooded in the nest by the female for a further two to three weeks. By between 26 and 29 days, young great gray owls are ready to fledge but continue to be fed outside of the nest by parents until they are around 3 months old.
Great gray owls’ eggs are a dull white in color, and slightly elongated. They measure around 5.4 cm (2.1 in) by 4.3 cm (1.7 in). A typical clutch consists of between 2 and 7 eggs.
Courtship begins as early as January, with males using ‘snow plunging’ displays to attract females at the start of the breeding season. Pairs remain together as they raise their young.
In some regions, pair bonds dissolve after young gain independence and become solitary and nomadic during winter months. In regions to the south, pairs remain bonded throughout the year but will seek a new mate if their original one dies.
Great Gray Owl sitting on the nest
A pair of Great Gray Owls at the nest with their young
Great gray owls have a reputation as being savage and fierce nest defenders and will strike with their razor-sharp talons at any potential predator that approaches too closely.
Intruders will be chased, and there are reports of humans sustaining slash injuries when they have disturbed a nesting great gray owl. Predators as large as bears have been driven away from nest sites by the vicious displays, and bill snapping and low hoots may be given as a warning to immediately precede an attack.
As a nocturnal species, great gray owls are active at night and sleep during the day, finding a spot close to the trunk where their plumage provides effective camouflage against the bark. In summer, spots near to the dense upper canopy are often chosen, offering relief from intense heat.
When raising young, male great gray owls may frequently hunt during the day too, to keep up with the feeding demands of their rapidly growing chicks.
Great Gray Owl in-flight in natural habitat
Great gray owls are usually resident birds, remaining in or close to their home territories for their entire lives. However, this can vary depending on prey availability.
Many great gray owls are nomadic, and wander from place to place outside of the breeding season and dispersing to regions with less snow cover in winter.
The main range of great gray owls lies to the north of the United States, although the southern extremes do extend across the border with Canada, and resident great gray owls are found across the northwestern states, through the Rocky Mountains, and as far south as the Sierra Nevada in California.
Great Gray Owl perching in the top of a tree
The global population of great gray owls is estimated at around 80,000 mature individuals or an overall population of approximately 120,000 individuals.
While great gray owls are North America’s largest owl species in terms of body length, they are not the world’s largest or heaviest owl.
Blakiston’s fish owl, resident in Russia, China, and the Japanese island of Hokkaido, is the world’s largest and heaviest owl, while in Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Eurasian eagle owl also eclipses the great gray owl in both length and weight.
Great Grey Owl
61cm to 84cm
137cm to 153cm
700g to 1.7kg
Arguably the world’s most instantly recognizable owl species (thanks possibly to the “celebrity” of Hedwig in the Harry Potter series), the snowy owl is a powerful and fearsome presence on Arctic tundra landscapes. It preys on lemmings and voles and will also successfully chase and capture much larger mammals and birds.
Despite being one of North America’s tiniest owls, the northern pygmy-owl has a reputation as being one of the most bloodthirsty, fearlessly hunting and carrying off prey up to three times its own size.
Great Horned Owl
An unmistakable species, the great horned owl is one of North America’s largest and heaviest owls, with clearly visible ear tufts on each side of the head. They are also among the most common and widespread owl species in much of the Americas, although sightings are rather rare due to their nocturnal lifestyle.
A common and widespread owl species across the eastern United States, the eastern screech-owl has adapted to survive in a diverse range of habitats, in both suburban neighborhoods and rural forested landscapes. Seemingly unfazed by human presence (at a distance), eastern screech owls readily roost in nest boxes hung in backyards.
Western screech-owls are a relatively widespread and abundant species in the western regions of North America, found in a range of habitat types from woodlands and suburban parks and gardens with mature tree cover to the arid mesquite landscapes of the Sonoran Desert.
One of North America’s tiniest owl species, flammulated owls are named for the flame-like markings that are present on their faces, back, wings and underparts. Their plumage allows them to blend into their forest habitats and remain elusive and rarely seen.
A small woodland owl native to eastern and south Asia, on two recorded occasions oriental scops-owls have strayed as far as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as vagrant visitors. These long-distance detours are highly unusual and the species is far more likely to be spotted in forested regions of east China.
Unique among North America’s birds, burrowing owls are the only species on the continent that nest and roost below the ground. Usually, an abandoned prairie dog burrow is used, but occasionally they will excavate their own tunnel that extends deep into the soil.
A small owl, resident in northern taiga landscapes, boreal owls are widespread but are rarely seen due to their favored habitats of dense coniferous and mixed forests, their secretive behavior and their nocturnal hunting habits.
Originally confined to forests and uplands in eastern North America, the barred owl has extended its range into the Pacific Northwest in recent decades and is now widespread across southern Canada. Their well-known ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?’ call can be heard resounding through woodlands in early spring.
North America’s smallest owl species, elf owls are widespread across the desert landscapes of the US-Mexico borders. Cavities in saguaro cacti are one of their favorite nesting spots, although they are also likely to use abandoned woodpecker hollows in trees, fence posts and utility poles in more urban settings.
Spotted owls are a species of intense conservation concern across North America. Numbers have declined steeply since the increase in logging activities across the Pacific Northwest from the 1970s onwards. Populations have now reached worryingly low levels, with only an estimated 6000 to 15,000 individuals believed to remain in the wild.
The most widespread pygmy-owl species in South America, ferruginous pygmy-owls are tiny reddish-brown owls roughly the same size as an eastern bluebird. Thriving in both desert landscapes of the extreme southern US and in tropical rainforests of South America, they are a mostly diurnal species, hunting for insects and lizards between dawn and dusk.
Northern Hawk Owl
Found in northern regions of North America, northeastern Europe and Siberia, northern hawk owls are unusual among owls for being active during the day rather than the night. The species is also known for its hawklike behavior, flight and body shape.
Mottled owls are native to Central America and much of northern South America. Barely any records exist of the species within the United States although they are present in various regions of Mexico. A nocturnal hunter with a varied diet, the mottled owl preys on small rodents, birds, insects and small reptiles, scanning the forest floor from a perch, waiting for an opportunity to swoop.
A small, noisy owl that thrives in montane forests from Arizona to Nicaragua, the whiskered screech-owl is named for the tufted bristles on its face. A highly nocturnal bird, the first alert to the presence of a whiskered screech-owl is usually hearing its distinctive trilled song resounding through moonlit woodlands.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
One of the smallest owl species of North America, the northern saw-whet owl is common and widespread across coniferous and mixed species forests of Canada and the United States. However, its nocturnal habits and secretive behavior means that sightings remain rare and the species is not particularly well-studied.
One of the world’s least-documented owl species, the stygian owl has a dark plumage and is found in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Vagrant visitors have occasionally been recorded in Texas and Florida, but otherwise it is not usually spotted in much of North America.
The Eurasian Scops Owl is one of the smaller members of the Strigidae family of owls being smaller even than the Little Owl. It is one of the few European owls that leaves its breeding grounds and migrates south during the winter.
The Tawny Owl is a carnivorous night hunter common throughout Europe and western Asia with pockets found within the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. It shouldn’t be confused with the Tawny Fish-owl of East Asia, the Tawny-bellied Screech owl of South America nor the Tawny-browed owl found on the eastern side of South America. The tawny owl is also occasionally referred to as the Brown Owl.
Unlike most owls, this medium sized bird is often seen hunting during daylight hours, mainly around dawn and dusk and particularly across farmland and in grassland, marsh and moorland areas.
As well as its distinctive ear tufts, perhaps the most striking feature of a long-eared owl are its piercing bright orange eyes. However, as the UKs most nocturnal owl species, its rare that they are out in daylight hours, so itd be a really rare event to see one with your own eyes.
The Little Owl is the UK’s smallest bird of prey and a fascinating species to observe. Introduced over a century ago, these newcomers from the European mainland have become a regular sighting in farmland across much of England.
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