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World Owl Trust - leading the World in Owl Conservation
Saturday 20th December, 2014

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Great Grey (Great Gray) Owls

This year we have bred one of the most charismatic owls in the collection.

2 Great Grey (Great Gray) Owl chicks hatched on June 2005. They are being reared by their parents and will join the captive breeding program for the species.

Great Grey (Great Gray) Chick   Another Picture of the Great Grey (Great Gray) Chick
Photographs Courtesy Mal & Jan Moore

The Great Grey (Great Gray) is one of the largest owls reaching weights of over 1kg. They are found in the spruce and pine forests of northern Canada and northern Scandinavia.

They hunt from a perch listening for their prey of voles, shrews, squirrels, rabbits and grouse. They use their excellent sense of hearing to listen for voles moving under the snow and catch them without being able to see them at all.

The staff are checking the owlets and placing rings on their legs which will identify them individually.

Come and see these stunning birds at the World Owl Trust.

The Great Grey (Great Gray) is what some might call the “ultimate owl”. Having spoken to many owl fanatics since I began working at the World Owl Trust, I have heard this species, more than any other cited as the hook that drew them into the world of owls.

It is little wonder since it displays those features that are so appealing about owls in marvellous exaggeration. The scientific name “nebulosa” is derived from the Latin “Nebulosus”, meaning misty or foggy and one of their local names in America is Great Grey (Great Gray) Ghost, which reflects their particularly silent flight.

The most striking feature of the great grey is the enormous facial disk with its barred spectacle markings, which do give that “wise old owl” impression. A closer look at these facial disk feathers reveals them to be, like those of the barn owl, almost skeletal in their structure, so allowing sound to pass through easily and be funnelled to the ear openings. Great Grey (Great Gray) Owls have such sensitive hearing that they can hear and capture a vole under a foot of snow: very important when your home range includes the Rocky Mountains, Alaska, Scandinavia and Northern Eurasia.

Great Greys (Grays) are well adapted to living in frozen climes and hunting in snow, having relatively long legs, under all that fluff, that are well feathered. They do however have to also allow for the hot seasons in their countries of residence and so have two main methods of regulating their temperature. Great Greys (Grays) roost in dense conifers, which provide protection from the elements at all times of year. In hot weather they will pant and droop their wings to expose the apertid – a bald area under the wing.

Great Grey (Great Gray) Owl
Photograph Courtesy Mal & Jan Moore

The wings themselves are extremely broad, as one might expect for a Strix species, meaning that the owl can carry relatively large prey items for an owl of a Great Grey’s (Gray’) weight (around 1.3kg, 47oz). In comparison with other owls, the Great Grey (Great Gray) is longer than, but comparatively lighter than other species.

Great Greys (Grays) are not endangered, but their population density is low throughout much of their range and in some areas they are considered as being of conservation concern. Deforestation, peat extraction, automobile collisions, development, pocket gopher poisoning, and cattle grazing are the main identified threats to the species. Scientists in America, such as Dr Jim Duncan, have been carrying out research into Great Greys (Grays) and drawing up habitat management recommendations for the species such as provision of good rodent habitat with hunting perches and nesting platforms to replace those lost by human activity. It is hoped that these measures, when used alongside the goodwill of foresters and farmers, will help to conserve this most majestic of owls for generations to come.

Jenny Holden

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The World Owl Trust is a member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) and the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA). The Trust relies on a dedicated membership, visitors, donations and legacies.
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