The Great Gray Owl is one of the icons of the world's boreal forests. In 1987 Manitobans adopted this magnificent bird as our Provincial Bird Emblem. One particular Great Gray Owl, Lady Gray'l, together with her friend, Dr. Bob Nero, played a major role in having this species selected.

Follow this link to learn more about Lady Gray'l and the Lady Gray'l Fund for conservation and education.

   

Manitoba's Provincial Bird Emblem, The Great Gray Owl

An Impressive Bird

The Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) is ranked by birders as number six among the fifty most-wanted birds on the continent. A rare bird, this species has been seen more regularly in parts of Manitoba than elsewhere in Canada. It is thus fitting that on July 16, 1987, by an Act of the Manitoba Legislature, the Great Gray Owl was officially named the Provincial Bird Emblem. Elevation of the status of the Great Gray Owl from unprotected in 1962 to provincial bird emblem in 1987, is in recognition of owls and other birds of prey as a valuable and treasured part of the natural world, and worthy of protection.

(Click thumbnail images for larger views.)

Big, bold and beautiful, the Great Gray Owl attracts attention wherever it is found. This denizen of the northern forest, with a wingspan of 1.5 m (5 ft.), is the largest North American owl, even larger than the heavier Great Horned Owl and Snowy Owl. Male and female Great Gray Owls look alike, but, as is the case for all birds of prey, the female is larger than the male. Males weigh up to 1.2 kg (2.6 Ibs.), females up to 1.8 kg (4 Ibs.). Bright yellow eyes, a lack of ear-tufts or "horns", a broad, round face and conspicuous white chin patches are key identifing features of this species. At night its low, booming "whoo-whoo-whoo ... " may be heard echoing across spruce-tamarack boglands.

(If your browser won't play the background sound file, Click Here to hear the call of the Great Gray Owl.)

   

Finding An Owl

Great Gray Owls are permanent residents of the mixed-wood and coniferous forests of Manitoba in the extreme southeast and from Riding Mountain National Park north to the treeline. In some winters when Great Grays have difficulty finding food in thick forests, they often look for prey in meadows near settlements and, especially, along roadsides. Hungry owls seem almost fearless of people. The best places to look for them are along roads in or near provincal forests east of Winnipeg and south of Lake Winnipeg, especially on calm, overcast days. Residents of northern communities such as The Pas, Norway House and Thompson can expect to see these birds every winter and occasionally in summer.

A Home For Owls

Black Spruce-Tamarack forests and associated meadows are home to orchids, owls and furbearers of several kinds. One such area 80 km (60 mi.) southeast of Winnipeg within the Sandilands Provincial Forest, has been set aside through a joint forestry-wildlife agreement as the Great Gray Owl Ecologically Significant Area. Much has been learned about the ecology, prey relationships and movements of Great Gray Owls through research on this site by five different graduate students in zoology and natural resource management, working under the auspices of the Department of Natural Resources. In the course of these studies, close to 800 owls have been banded, a large number considering that the first Great Gray Owl ever banded in North America was captured in 1947. Based on 20 years of trapping and banding studies and recorded sightings, it is believed that there may be as many as 1500 to 3000 Great Gray Owls in the province.

The Owl's Gift

By Dr. Bob Nero

In the dark rainy night
I consult with this oracle
reaching through soft feathers
to feel her warm throat
thinking as I do that
the fabric of her being
is mere thin skin stretched
over braced bones and flesh
a fragile assemblage
to so command our attention.

So then where's the spirit of
this comforting creature that
ceaselessly charms us all?
It must be in her mind
(do birds have minds?)
it's in her attitude, the way
she trusts us and accepts us;
she comes from her owl-being
to meet us in her time
gravely allowing us a
glimpse of her world
a gift of tender tolerance
we do well to honour.


For more owl-poetry

by Robert Nero click here:

Owl Poems


Owls Need Hawks

Great Gray Owls do not build their own nests, but rely on finding nests built by such birds as the Northern Goshawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk and, perhaps, the Common Raven. Since hawks require mature or large deformed trees to support their nests, maintenance of tracts of old forest, or of young forests that contain some mature trees, is a basic requirement for ensuring the future of the Great Gray Owl. Snags left when older trees are broken off by wind also serve as nesting sites for these adaptable owls.

[ Download the brochure: Cutting for Wildlife - Forest Harvest and the Great Gray Owl ]

A Hunger for Mice

Great Gray Owls feed mainly on small mammals such as mice, voles and shrews. The Meadow Vole and Red-backed Vole are the main prey items over most of this bird's range in Manitoba. During the breeding season, a family of owls may consume 15 to 25 voles daily. The number of eggs and successful fledging of young varies with the availability of prey. Every 3 or 4 years, vole populations in southeastern Manitoba decline, and many Great Gray Owls move as far as 700 km (500 mi.) north and northeast, returning 2 to 3 years later when vole populations have increased. The forested peatlands of southeastern Manitoba thus provide significant nesting habitat for owls from northern Manitoba and western Ontario.

(Click thumbnail images for larger views.)

Great Gray Owls can see a vole or mouse on top of the snow at a great distance, even on a bright sunny day. They also have acute hearing and can hear a vole 30.5 m (100 ft.) away and under more than 30 cm (12 in.) of snow. Once a vole is detected, the owl will often hover above its prey to ftx the location, then plunge head downward into the snow. With its long, powerful legs it can thus grab a vole up to 46 cm (18 in.) below the surface. This behaviour is an adaptation for obtaining prey under the deep snow of the northern forest.

 

A Long Cold Wait

An average of three white eggs, a little smaller than a hen's egg, are laid from mid-March to early April. The female and the male attend the nest for 2 1/2 months, but only the female incubates the eggs. The incubation period is about 30 days. Since the eggs are laid at intervals of 3 days or more, the oldest and youngest chicks in a nest vary markedly in size and development. When the chicks are about 3 weeks old they jump out of the nest, encouraged by the female. Though unable to fly at this early age, they are good climbers and make their way up nearby slanted trees. About 2 months later, the female deserts the family group, leaving the young in the care of the male who feeds them for another few weeks until they are able to secure prey on their own.

Owls and People

Great Gray Owls are fairly tolerant of humans and co-exist even in high-use areas. Although much of southeastern Manitoba is criss-crossed by roads, and has been repeatedly burned, logged, and cleared for agriculture, owls occur in large numbers in some years. As long as certain habitat requirements are met, we can expect to have owls flourishing in this area, thus giving many people an opportunity to enjoy an encounter with our provincial bird.

Teachers and kids!

Here's a Great Gray Owl poster you can download and colour!

Lady Gray'l

Lady Gray'l, a Great Gray Owl that served to educate and entertain many people, died of natural causes on October 13, 2005. This famous owl, taken from a nest as an injured chick in May 1984, was 21 1/2 years old when she died. For her full story, see the book Lady Gray'l, Owl With A Mission by R. Nero.

Along with her handler and friend, Dr. Bob Nero, Lady Gray'l was a frequent visitor to schools, shopping malls, nursing homes and at various conservation programs. Together they educated thousands about conservation. She was the most travelled owl in Manitoba, the most photographed individual bird in North America, and her name is well known beyond our own provincial borders.

It should be noted that Lady Gray'l and Dr. Nero played a major role in having the Great Gray Owl selected as Manitoba's official bird emblem in 1987. And in her memory, the Lady Gray'l Fund has been established at The Winnipeg Foundation.

The Lady Gray'l Fund

The Lady Gray'l Fund will be used to fund research, conservation and education projects directly relating to owls and other wildlife. Please consider making a donation. You can contribute online.

Follow this link to the Winnipeg Foundation website. Click on their "Make an Online Gift" button. Highlight the button for "Search for the fund you wish to contribute to" and enter "Lady Gray'l". Then follow the instructions for making a donation.

A donation to the Lady Gray'l Fund is tax-deductable and would make a great gift for any "birder" or nature lover in your life.

(This picture icon will take you on a slide show of Lady Gray'l's career.
Click the NEXT or PREV buttons in the pictures to navigate.)

Watch some video of Lady Gray'l doing her thing for conservation at a Winnipeg mall and in a classroom:

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

A bird of mystery,

the Great Gray Owl

bears in its aloofness

some of the remoteness

of the vast northland;

its plumage

the color of lichens

and weathered wood;

its soft hooting,

part of the wind.

 

Robert Nero
The Great Gray Owl,
Phantom of the
Northern Forest.


For more owl-poetry

by Robert Nero click here:

Owl Poems

   


Credits

NatureNorth would like to thank Manitoba Conservation for allowing us to digitally reproduce the brochure: "The Great Gray Owl, Manitoba's Provincial Bird Emblem". (Originally funded by Manitoba Conservation, Cambrian Credit Union and the Manitoba Wildlife Federation.)

 

We would also like to thank the photographers who allowed us to feature their work on this page: Gordon Court, Robert R. Taylor and Ann Cook. You can see more of Robert's and Ann's work at their web sites:

Robert R. Taylor - www.polarbearphotography.com | Ann Cook - Birds of Manitoba

Header image for this page, "Moonlight Hunter", by Robert R. Taylor. Look for Robert Taylor's book, The Great Gray Owl - On Silent Wings (click thumbnail for book cover).


More owl links in NatureNorth: Manitoba Owl Calls | Noctural Owl Survey | Outdoors Column - A Hoo's Hoo

Return to NatureNorth's front page | Spring Issue | Summer Issue | Fall Issue | Winter Issue