Gus is a Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) who came to the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital in September of 2009. He was found in someone’s yard near Spokane, unable to fly due to a fractured right wing. When he arrived at the vet hospital, it was determined that the wing was so badly fractured that it could not be saved. The wildlife veterinarian made the decision to amputate his wing at the elbow. Since he can no longer fly, Gus will spend the remainder of his life in captivity.
Great Gray Owls live in dense mountain forests in the far northern latitudes of North America and Eurasia. They are strictly cold weather birds and can only be found at high elevations or in the Arctic tundra. They are very well prepared to deal with cold weather. Great grays have a very thick layer of feathers that extends all the way down their feet and even covers their toes. The Great Gray Owl is very recognizable by its large facial disk and bright yellow eyes. They also have a noticeable white “bowtie” on their throat directly below the facial disk. Their scientific name “nebulosa” comes from the Latin word for “clouded” or “foggy” and refers to their grey and white plumage coloring. Great Gray Owls are the largest owls in North America in terms of height and wingspan. However, most of their size is attributed to their dense feathering. They stand about 2-3 feet tall and have a wingspan of 4 ½ to 5 feet! However, both the Great Horned and Snowy owls tend to outweigh the Great Gray.
Great Gray Owls are usually crepuscular, hunting mostly at dawn and dusk, but are capable of hunting any time during the day or night. In far northern regions, the day and night periods are prolonged sometimes as long as 3 months, so the owl has no choice but to hunt in the light. Their primary source of food is small mammals such as voles and lemmings, but they will also eat insects, amphibians, and birds. Great greys have much smaller feet than other large owls because they tend not to hunt anything very large. Their extraordinary hearing allows them to hunt prey that is tunneling under the snow. They can pinpoint the exact location of the prey by triangulating the location of the sound it makes. They then swoop down and dive – feet first – into the snow, often emerging with a meal in their grasp. They can break through packed snow that would normally support a 180-pound man!
Great Gray Owls will use empty nests built by other birds. They will also nest in broken off tree stumps, platforms and sometimes on the ground. They are generally quiet birds – however, they can make a variety of noises when communicating. Their call is a series of very deep rhythmic “hoots”. When threatened they can click their beak and hiss. They can also make a high pitched squeaking noise!