Also Known as the Spectral Owl for Its Silent, Ghostlike Flight at Night
BY SAM CURTIS
While looking for elk sign in knee-deep snow at the edge of a forest clearing in the Gallatin Range, I noticed a lodgepole pine, its top apparently snapped off by strong winds. Then the top of the broken tree rotated, becoming a feathered head with a facial disk studded with two piercing yellow eyes. The gaze of the great gray owl stopped me midstride.
For the next 15 minutes I forgot all about elk and stood dead still watching the reclusive owl deliber-ately scanning the surrounding terrain. Finally, it dove from its perch and plunged into the snow for a rodent burrowing below the surface. The sight remains one of my most memorable wildlife encounters.
The great gray is North America’s largest owl. The female has a wingspan of 4.5 feet, stands 28 inches tall, and weighs only about 2 pounds—so most of its mass is feathers. Males are somewhat smaller but otherwise similar in appearance: mostly gray colored and with a relatively long tail and no ear tufts on the head. The great gray’s most striking feature is a huge facial disk covering the front of the head containing concentric gray circles surrounding bright yellow eyes. At the bottom edge of the disk is a white “moustache” strip broken by a black “bow tie” below the yellow beak.
The great gray makes territorial announcements and calls its mate with an appropriately owlish whoo-whoo-whoo, repeated softly in a low pitch every 15 to 30 seconds, usually at night.
The great gray owl is also known as the spectral owl, perhaps for the way it flies silently through the forest at night or its haunting alarm cry. The scientific name nebulosa, from the Latin nebulosus, meaning “misty” or “foggy,” also suggests ghostlike characteristics.
Montana is one of the few states in the lower 48 where great gray owls live. Other than Canada and Alaska, where it is common, the species is found only in Minnesota, the central Sierra Nevadas, and the northern Rockies as far south as Yellowstone National Park. The bird is also found throughout northern Asia and Europe, where it is often known as the Lapland owl.
In Montana, the great gray is found in mixed conifer forests interspersed with swamps, meadows, and small clearings where bordering trees and snags provide hunting perches.
The great gray’s exceptional eyesight and hearing allow it to detect mice, voles, and other small animals that comprise its diet. Though this owl sometimes hunts on the wing, flying close to the ground, it usually plays a waiting game, surveying the open area below a hunting perch for sounds and movement.
Even rodents burrowing a foot beneath the snow are vulnerable to the owl’s sharp senses. A great gray will plunge talon first into deep snow for a meal, leaving spread wing prints and a few drops of blood as evidence of the attack.
These owls are a resident species in Montana, moving around during the year in search of food. Studies in Wyoming show their average home range to be roughly 1.6 square miles. The raptors tend to move from higher to lower elevations when prey is scarce and snow is deep. Where prey is abundant, great gray owls may congregate in high densities of up to five pairs per square mile. Although they tolerate other great grays in foraging areas, the owls are aggressively territorial around nesting sites.
Nesting begins in March and April when the male offers the female food from his beak, which she accepts with her eyes closed. Then the male shows the female several nesting possibilities in abandoned hawk or raven nests or hollowed-out clumps of dwarf mistletoe. Once the female chooses a nest, the pair often line it with moss or deer or elk hair.
The female lays an average of three eggs, which she incubates for 28 days. The male provides food, which the female shreds to feed the young. Within three or four weeks, the fledglings are leaving the nest and climbing around in the nesting tree. They can fly by eight weeks but stay near the nest and parental care for two or three months after that.
Great gray owl populations appear to be healthy within their range in Montana and throughout North America.
From Montana Outdoors
The Owl’s Flight Across Time and Cultures
No creature on earth has gained entry to the human psyche like the Owl—silent, watchful, passing through darkened spaces like a specter, these birds have since earliest times found their way into the wishful dreams and foreboding nightmares of humanity.
The Oglala Sioux revered the Owl. Warriors prevailing in battle wore a cap of owl feathers as a medal of bravery, and a Sioux society, The Owl Lodge, strove to embody qualities of their lodge’s namesake, believing natural forces favored those who wore owl feathers and that doing so enhanced wisdom and vision. To an Apache, the Owl was the most feared of all creatures. Dreaming of an owl or seeing one foretold death, a belief that holds true to this day among various Indian traditions. Often, though, the creature represents supernatural knowledge among Native Americans. Among the Navajo, not unlike peoples from other parts of the world, after death the soul takes the form of an owl or is ushered onward in spirit by one. Among the Ojibwa, the creature represents death and evil, but also an exalted status for shamans, and to the Pawnee, a spirit of protection.
To Indians of another kind, Hindus, an owl calling from a sacred grove at night is said to have captured the spirit of a human being leaving this world. In ancient Egyptian and Celtic cultures, as with Hindus, the symbolic meaning reflects the Owl’s nocturnal aura as a guardian of the underworld and protector of the dead.
Associations with darkness and evil may be misunderstood. In West Africa, for example, owls are known as “witch bird,” but the terminology may translate poorly into the western mind, in that West African and aboriginal Australian cultures knew the owl as a conveyor of secrets, related to sorcerers, and as companions of shamans.
Poles, too, associate owls with death and misfortune, and in Roman times Pliny the Elder wrote that owls foretell only evil. Yet, in Japan, figures of owls placed in homes repel famine and plagues. In Christian lore, owls convey the wisdom of Christ appearing in the darkness. In Greek mythology, the Owl is associated with Athena, the goddess of learning, and was depicted on the Greco-Roman four-drachma coin as a symbol of wealth, status, and intelligence.