Jeff Green | Jan 13, 2005
Feature Article January 20
Feature article January 20, 2005LAND O' LAKES NewsWeb Home
Winter of the Great Gray Owl
This winter is an opportunity for many Ontarians to see this majestic bird. There must be a lack of available food for them in their more northern summer habitat, for there have been many reports from people right across Ontario who have seen them.
The Great Gray Owl is larger than all our other owls, but this is deceptive. Its large, rounded head, long fluffy plumage, long, broad wings and tail make it seem larger than it really is. Stripped of its feathers it would be only slightly larger than the Barred Owl, and would be smaller than the Snowy or Great Horned Owls. The facial disk of feathers of the Great Gray can be six inches across which also enhances the impression of size.
Coming south in search of food, this owl may be seen perched on a tree or hydro pole, watching and listening for any sign of a small animal in the snow, with its favourite food the Meadow Vole. The bird has extremely sensitive ears that are placed asymmetrically on its skull. I was delighted to see one near my house before Christmas, and watched as it moved from perch to perch actively seeking prey. It was easy to tell when it heard something rustling or squeaking under the snow as it would bend its head in the direction of sound, and would occasionally take off obviously towards something it heard, then veer up to another perch. Only once did I see it make a successful catch - diving into the snow, and in a few moments coming up with a vole, which was swallowed in one gulp.
Plummeting headfirst toward its target, a Great Gray Owl thrusts its long legs forward at the last minute so it strikes the snow with powerful feet rather than its head. It can punch through an ice crust that is half an inch thick and is capable of supporting the weight of a 185-pound man. Then it sifts through the snow with its toes to come up with a vole in its talons. This bird stayed in this area for three days and then must have moved on, probably because there was not a lot of food. There is a real danger to these birds of starvation - if they do not find sufficient food, they become emaciated and eventually die. If the vole and mouse population is low (populations of voles cycle periodically), the owls will move from area to area, and if their hunts are unsuccessful there is no future for them.
As I reported last week Brian Sutton saw one close to Highway 7, possibly the one I had seen earlier. Peri McQuay reports one near their home near Bobs Lake on January 4, and one was seen on the Christmas Bird Count on December 28 on McPhail Road east of Perth - and reportedly still there on January 5.
It is possible to approach these birds quite closely, as they seem to have no fear of people, though it will turn its head and stare unblinkingly at a person with its yellow eyes. If you do see one, please do not approach it closely - you may jeopardize its future by disturbing its hunt, or putting stress on the bird.