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!