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The Tale of A Great Grey Owl (natural history and the story of our ambassador)

The Tale of A Great Grey Owl (strix nebulosa)

–         Strix is Greek for “strizo” which means screech

–         Nebulosa is Latin for darker clouded   ………….

Did you know that:

“Size wise, the great grey owl takes the prize,

but they are more fluff than substance.

Both the Snowy Owl and the Great Horned Owl weigh more.”

This segment is a part of the life of a Great Grey owl known as Nascha.  Her story begins three years ago when she was found by the side of the road near Neepawa, Manitoba. She was most likely in hot pursuit of a mouse or other prey and was unsuspectedly hit by an oncoming vehicle.  She was taken to the Winnipeg Humane Society, where the veterinarian had to amputate her right wing.  After her operation, Nascha was taken in by the Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Center where she has come to be known and loved as an official education ambassador…But what of her past and life as an owlet? Her age will likely remain a mystery as she was already an adult when found. What if the vehicle had missed hitting her? What is the “usual” life of a great grey owl?

Not only are Great Grey Owls Manitoba’s provincial bird, they inhabit a large part of Canada from the northern regions of the Great Lakes in Ontario, throughout Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan, and most of Alberta and British Columbia, and as far north as southeastern Alaska. In the United States they are found in western Oregon, northern Idaho, central Washington, northern Idaho, Oregon east of the Cascade Range, and south to California, where they are on the endangered species list. The Great Greys are also found in areas of Eurasia, especially in northern territories.  They are the largest (but not the heaviest) owl in North America, weighing in at an average of 1.5 – 3 lbs., with a wing span of 4.5 – 5 feet, and a length of 24 – 33 inches.

Great grey owls favour habitats with both forested areas, and open areas that are home to a variety of prey, such as voles, mice squirrels, gophers and others, including birds.

In winter, they often locate by sound. The Great Grey locates mice and voles under the snow with its triangular hearing (one of its ears is positioned higher on its head than the one on the other side). This specialized hearing allows for detection of prey three feet below the snow! The great grey usually dives down into the snow and grasps the prey with its talons, but sometimes goes head first with its legs and talons poised to grasp its prey. The great grey owl also has very keen eyesight. Great Greys, with their large yellow eyes, have been known to locate prey some 219 yards (200 meters) moving on top of the snow and silently swooping down to snatch up their catch.  The great grey owl mainly hunts at dusk and dawn (crepuscular), and also at night (nocturnal), and occasionally during the day (diurnal).

The great grey owl does not mate for life. Females may brood in the same nest for several seasons, but eventually leave the old nest and steal another bird’s nest (usually another raptor), or find a suitable tree cavity, or even construct  her own nest. Courting usually starts in mid-January and continues until mid-April. The female great grey utters quiet hoots and starts to move her weight from leg to leg as soon as she sees a male approaching with prey.  After the offering is presented and accepted, the pair bond has been formed and the pair spend time both preening and feeding each other.  Breeding season begins in late March, and continues until mid May in the Northern regions.  Eggs are laid at 2-3 day intervals, and a female usually lays three to five eggs, and has been known to have up to nine eggs in her nest.  The female incubates the nest and is fed by the male.  She does leave the nest for short intervals to hunt on her own.

The young usually venture out of the nest about 30 days after hatching to nimbly explore their surroundings in their nesting tree.  It has been estimated that full fledging occurs when the owls are 50-55 days old. They remain in the surrounding area for several months, cared for by the female, before flying off on their own.  They are considered mature at three years of age.

Nascha (whose name means “owl” in the Navajo language) would no longer be able to survive in her natural settings, but is now highly respected for her presence and delightful nature with PWRC!  And… the average life span for great greys in the wild is about 7-13 years, whereas in captivity it goes up to 27 years!  She has roomy, well furnished living quarters and full meals of fresh mice each day! Not to mention the excursions to schools and special events for education purposes.  Yup, a pretty good life for Manitoba’s Provincial Bird!

Nadine Andrusiak

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