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Great gray owls elicit awe

Remember the amazing owl irruption of 2004-05?

Beginning in the late fall and over the winter, great gray owls, boreal owls and northern hawk owls were being seen in large numbers north of Bemidji, around the Roseau area, in the big bog country of Red Lake and all of northeastern Minnesota. Snowy owls were showing up in abundance throughout northern Red River Valley too.

According to a Duluth area bird report sponsored by the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union during the beginning of the mass owl invasion over the first week of December 2004, some 500 great gray owl sightings had been reported.

Northern hawk owl sightings numbered 125, while the number of boreal owls captured and banded had increased to more than 300.

The report went on to say that the "(owl) irruption is likely the result of the four year low point in the population cycle of the small rodents that make up most of the prey for these species, combined with a very wet and cold summer across Canada that resulted in a further reduction in the available food. Numbers of these species increase in our area every four years or so (following the prey cycle), but this year's irruption is unprecedented."

Many of us wondered if the owl irruption of four years ago would result in a few great gray owls taking up residence here in northern Minnesota. It now appears that the answer is no. Great grays, though showing up from time to time and thrilling those people lucky enough to observe them, have resigned themselves to their historic range. Even so, great gray owls are more than worthy of talking about once again.

There are 19 species of owls in North America, 12 of which occur in Minnesota alone. Great gray owls belong to the avian order Strigiformes, family Strigidae, and the genus Strix. Only two other owls belong to the same genus -- the spotted owl of the West and our own barred owl.

With a 5-foot wingspan and a 2-foot-long body, it's no wonder people describe the great gray owl as huge. Thus, there should be no mistaking a great gray owl. And though appearing as the largest of all owls, great horned and snowy owls are actually heavier but appear smaller because of plumage that is much less fluffed out than that of their gray cousins.

A long tail, absent ear tufts and the gray concentric circles on their facial disks that draw your gaze into their striking yellow eyes are notable features of the great gray owl. No other large owl except for the distinctive looking snowy owl has yellow eyes and no ear tufts.

The closely related and abundant barred owl is a possible look-alike. However, the great gray owl is a rare, much larger, far north bird of prey.

Great gray owls range throughout the Rocky Mountains and much of Canada and Alaska, as well as extreme northern Minnesota. As already experienced during the winter of 2004-05, great grays become more abundant in Minnesota during years when food shortages occur farther north.

It should surprise many readers of just how deceptively small the actual body of the great gray owl really is.

In the book "Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey," the Rev. C.W.G. Eifrig is quoted in an account he wrote in regard to a skinned specimen: "... Its large facial disk, much larger than in other owls, heightens the impression of largeness, besides making it appear somewhat solemn, mysterious, and uncanny. The body taken out from this owl (without skin, head and wings) measured only, length 6½ inches ... weight 8-10 (ounces) ... It is hard to understand how such a tiny body compared to the bulk of the bird could keep up the huge wings, heavy claws and enormous head, whose circumference measures 20 inches, the facial disk alone, 6 inches."

The author of the book, Arthur Cleveland Bent, reported that Eifrig's bird was "somewhat emaciated" but believed it should not be discounted.

Of four great gray owls from his own records, weights ranged from 1 pound 15 ounces to 2 pounds 14½ ounces.

Great gray owls are daytime as well as dusk and nighttime hunters.

Squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice, voles, shrews and rabbits and hares make up the bulk of this owl's diet. Other prey includes crows, ravens and small birds.

Once prey is spotted from an elevated nearby perch, a great gray will swoop down, fall heavily onto its quarry and grip its prey tightly with its strong feet and talons.

As is the case for all owls, bodies or body parts of their prey are swallowed whole -- feathers, fur, bones and all.

Parts that cannot be digested are later regurgitated.

Many accounts of great gray owl observations report of the relative tameness and fearlessness of the bird when in the presence of humans.

In the previously mentioned book, Francis H. Allen wrote, ""The owl (great gray) seemed perfectly fearless of me, but showed nervousness when the crows cawed nearby ..."

Bent, however, remarked that "The great gray owl is apparently a very tame and unsuspicious bird, or a very stupid one."

Nevertheless, seeing a great gray owl in the wild leaves a lasting impression. Its imposing size commands attention, leaving us in a sense of awe.

Along with its unassuming disposition, a visit from a great gray owl seems like a visit from a friend as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.


Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at