The Great Grey Owl is one of the world’s largest owls. It is often referred to as the Great Grey Ghost or Phantom of the North as it is one of the most reclusive owls of North America. Add to that its secretive habits and you have a bird that is rarely seen and little known.
As the name indicates, the Great Grey Owl is predominately grey with a prominent facial disc. It is a large bird but graceful in flight and quite a sight to see.
While most owls are nocturnal, the Great Grey prefers to hunt in the morning or early afternoon. They usually hunt from a perch, swooping down and snatching up their prey before they realize there is a threat.
The Great Grey Owl is the largest of the North American owls measuring 24 to 30 inches tall with a 4 to 5 foot wingspan. As the name implies, the Great Grey is predominantly grey. The wings and back are dark grey with pale grey bars and the chest and belly are lighter grey with dark streaks running through them. The Great Grey Owl has a prominent facial disc with yellow eyes circled with alternating light and dark rings. There are two distinct white patches along the bottom of the facial disc suggestive of a “moustache”. There are no ear tufts, its tail is long, and its feet are heavily feathered. The female is similar in appearance, but is slightly larger than the male.
The Great Grey Owl can be found in Scandinavia, northern Europe, Russia, and throughout Canada and the northern most part of the U.S. It is a year-round resident of secluded wilderness areas. They prefer the coniferous forests of the north and the mountainous area in the west. They settle in densely forested areas near open meadows and bogs.
The male selects several possible nesting sites for the female to choose from, but the Great Grey Owls are not nest builders. They typically refurbish a nest abandoned by other large birds or the top of stumps with clumps of brush. They will make use of a cavity if they can find one large enough to accommodate them. The female usually lays 4 eggs over several days and incubates them for 28 to 36 days. The female will brood for another 2 to 3 weeks while the male provides food for his mate and the young. Around this time the owlets either fall or jump from the nest. As they are not yet able to fly, they have to climb back up to the nest. It takes another week or two for young to learn to fly. They remain close to “home” for several months under the watchful eye of the female after fledging.
Great Grey Owls are carnivores. They will prey on gophers, squirrels, rabbits, mice, rats and even small birds and reptiles, but voles make up the bulk of their diet. They usually hunt in the early mornings or late afternoon but will hunt at night or in broad daylight if the need arises. They usually hunt from a perch, watching and waiting for prey to come to them. With their keen sense of hearing, they can hear their prey move about in tunnels two feet beneath the snow. The Great Greys will crash through the layer of snow, snatch up their prey and return to their perch to eat. They may fly low through open areas in search of prey but it is not their preferred method of hunting.