People passionate about nature

Great Gray Owl

Photo by Dennis Swayze

The Great Gray Owl is the Provincial Bird of Manitoba, and the “tallest” owl in North America (Snowy Owl and Great Horned Owl may appear smaller but they are both heavier).

How do I recognize it? Distinguished by its tall, sleek, body; large round head without ear-tufts; soft grey plumage; and large, flat facial disk with piercing yellow eyes and black and white 'bow tie' underneath the facial disk.

Is it migratory? Great Gray Owls are somewhat nomadic but not migratory in the true sense. It is an example of an irruptive species, with population cycles following the cycle of their main prey here, the meadow vole. Birders often report larger concentrations of this species in some areas when irruptions occur; in extreme cases over 100 individuals have been seen in a single day!

Where does it live? The Great Gray Owl is at home in the boreal forest, especially in tamarack bogs.

Where I see it? In Manitoba, the southern edge of the boreal forest is generally speaking the best place to find Great gray Owls. This includes Riding Mountain National Park, Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park, and areas east of Winnipeg such as around Lac du Bonnet, Pinawa and Sandilands Provincial Forest.  It is especially important to keep a good distance from any owl if you spot one, especially in winter, a time were animals need to conserve energy for hunting. Many people mistakenly conclude that an owl that does not fly away is not impacted by our presence  but this is almost invariably false. Here is some great info on recognizing stress in owls.

Conservation status: Due in part to its Holarctic range, this species is currently considered of Least Concern and not listed under federal or provincial Species At Risk Acts. Nonetheless, habitat loss through clear cutting and peat extraction and clearing for agriculture impact this species.

How can I help them? The more information we have on the distribution of owls, the more we understand them and the more we can conserve their habitat. You can do so by getting involved in the Nocturnal Owl Survey

Did you know? Great Gray Owls have a remarkable ability to locate voles deep under snow. Numerous adaptations including asymmetrical ear openings enable them to plunge into several feet of snow to grab an unsuspecting rodent beneath. Reports suggest that Great Gray Owls have broken through snow crust thick enough to support an 80kg human.