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Great Gray Owl

Strix nebulosa ORDER: STRIGIFORMES FAMILY: STRIGIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Great Gray Owl is a dapper owl dressed in a gray suit with a bow tie across its neck and a surprised look on its face. In the stillness of a cold mountain meadow the elusive giant quietly floats on broad wings across meadows and openings in evergreen forests. They are mostly owls of the boreal forest with small populations in western mountains, but in some years they move farther south in search of food, giving some a unique opportunity to see this majestic owl.

Keys to identification Help

Owls
Owls
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Great Grays are one of our tallest owls, and have broad wings and a long tail. They are big headed owls with a large facial disk. They dwarf most other owls in size but not by weight; their bulk is mostly made of feathers. Females are larger than males.

  • Color Pattern

    Great Gray Owls are silvery gray overall—patterned with fine white, gray, and brown streaking and faint barring. Their yellow eyes shine through the fine gray-and-brown concentric circles of the facial disk. Two pale arcs form an “X” between the eyes. Across the neck sits a white “bow tie” marking with a black center. Their bill, if visible, is yellow. Males and females look similar.

  • Behavior

    Great Gray Owls generally do not call attention to themselves and tend to avoid areas with people. They quietly perch on the edges of meadows or forest openings and are nearly invisible despite their size. Great Grays hunt at night and during the hours before dawn and dusk. They quietly fly low, on broad wings, over meadows watching and listening for small mammals.

  • Habitat

    Great Gray Owls spend their time in dense evergreen pine and fir forests with small openings or meadows nearby. They also live in subarctic swampy evergreen forest dotted with bogs or other openings (also known as taiga).

Range Map Help

Great Gray Owl Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Great Gray Owl

    Adult
    • Long tail
    • Large head and facial disk
    • Streaked chest
    • Small yellow bill
    • Yellow eyes
    • © Gregory Lis, Nicola Valley, British Columbia, Canada, June 2014
  • Adult

    Great Gray Owl

    Adult
    • Large broad wings
    • Long tail
    • Large, gray facial disk
    • Streaked chest
    • white "bow tie"
    • © Bill McMullen, Canada, February 2017
  •  

    Great Gray Owl

     
    • Very large owl with broad, circular facial disc
    • Small bill almost hidden by feathers of facial disc
    • Mottled gray plumage with darker markings on breast
    • © Ronald Kube, Cochrane, Alberta, Canada, May 2012
  •  

    Great Gray Owl

     
    • Very large owl with elongated body shape
    • Broad, gray facial disc with dark, concentric "rings"
    • White "bow tie"
    • © Ronald Kube, Grand Valley, Alberta, Canada, May 2012
  •  

    Great Gray Owl

     
    • Very large, mottled gray owl
    • Broad, gray facial disc with dark, concentric rings gives intimidating appearance
    • Yellow eyes
    • © Raymond Lee, Alberta, Canada, December 2010

Similar Species

Similar Species

Often the key to telling owls apart without hearing them call is to look at facial markings. Both Barred and Spotted owls are considerably smaller than a Gray Gray, with darker brown plumage and dark eyes. Great Horned Owls have a reddish brown, not gray facial disk and they have bars on their breast, not streaks as on Great Grays. Great Horned Owls also have ear tufts that Great Grays lack. Snowy Owls have white faces and are either barred black and white or are mostly white.

Backyard Tips

If you are lucky enough to live within the range of the Great Gray Owl, you can build a nest structure to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. You'll find plans for building a nest structure of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

The Great Gray Owl is an elusive bird that is not easy to find, despite its size. Your best chance of seeing one is during an irruptive year when it comes south in search of food. Join your local birding group email listserv and watch rare bird alters to know when one has been sighted near you. You can also use the eBird species maps tool to find areas where other birders reported them in the past to try your luck at finding one. In these areas slowly walk the perimeter of a meadow or other opening looking for dark figures in trees. Pay particular attention to dead trees and don’t forget to look at all levels in the trees as they can sometimes perch fairly low. To catch them hunting, make sure to get out in the right habitat before dawn or dusk. Because Great Gray Owls are highly sought-after by birders and photographers who want to see the birds, and are sensitive to disturbance, don’t use call playbacks to find them. Using mice to bait or lure in owls (of any species) should be avoided all together.

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The Cornell Lab will send you updates about birds, birding, and opportunities to help bird conservation. You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell or give your email address to others.