Great Gray Owl takes a winter vacation in Minnesota

The Great Gray Owl, the largest owl in North America, normally lives in a wide swath of forests sweeping from Alaska across to northeastern Canada. However, this winter Minnesotans have spotted the giant owls all over the state. The Great Gray Owl is a hunter that mostly eats voles, small rodents similar to mice. Last fall, the vole population in Canada fell to its lowest levels since 1992. (Because cold, wet weather is hard on the voles, the population has headed south.) As a result, the Great Grey Owl has had a hard time finding food up north. It has followed its food source and ended up here in Minnesota, south of its usual range.

Links and Other Info

According to Tom Anderson, Director of the Science Museum's Warner Nature Center, the Great Gray Owls are showing up as far south as the Wild River State Park , just northeast of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area. Some researchers think the Great Gray Owls that are showing up in Minnesota might represent 1/10 of the entire North American population. But the giant owls aren't just appearing in Minnesota. During the annual Audubon Society Christmas bird count, volunteers found a Great Gray Owl in Central Park, deep within New York City. This was the first sighting of the bird in Central Park since the existence of the Audubon bird count: over 100 years.

The sudden appearance of these great birds reminds us that the environment around us is always shifting. A change in weather hundreds of miles away can make it hard on a vole, which makes it hard on an owl, and all of a sudden our whole local picture changes.

I was up north this weekend in Beaver Bay and didn't see any of these majestic birds, but people looking for birds have seen hundred of them. Have you seen a Great Gray Owl here in Minnesota, in the Twin Cities, or anywhere else?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

bryan kennedy's picture

Great Gray Owls generally hunt by flying very low to the ground. Dr. Robbins of the University of Kansas says that as many as 500 owls have been found dead here in Minnesota, many of them hit by cars.

Paul Smithson, one of the Naturalists at the Warner Nature Center, said that the University of Minnesota Raptor Center has about 18 Gray Owl "patients" recovering from injuries at any one time. One of these owls was released out at the Warner Nature Center when it got healthy enough in December of 2004. Mr. Smithson says that at least one Great Gray Owl has been sighted about a half mile from Warner, atop a road sign looking down into a ditch. Looking for voles, I'll bet!

posted on Wed, 03/09/2005 - 2:49pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I think owls are cool ! I wold like to learn about owls.

posted on Sat, 04/29/2006 - 4:49pm
Lynn Grigg's picture
Lynn Grigg says:

My husband's family has 300 or so acres in Buckingham County, Virginia (dead center of Virginia). There are a great many birds and other kinds of wildlife on the property. We are always pleased to see any and all. Among the many owls there, we have been seeing a great grey on a fairly regular basis for about 2 years now. He/she is an absolutely awesome sight to behold. It's the biggest bird we've seen in the wild save for wild turkey or buzzards.

posted on Tue, 03/07/2006 - 10:17am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

We are on a creek that feeds the James River in Richmond, Va and ALSO have a BEAUTIFUL GREAT GRAY OWL. She sits in the tree about 10 feet away from us and watches us and makes her distinctful female call and then her territorial hoo hoo hooo sound. She is the larget bird we have seen too and are so blessed to have this experience. Apparently she is not at all afraid of humans or found often in Virginia...but, I thought it was interesting that another family in central Va also have a great gray owl on their property.

posted on Thu, 12/07/2006 - 8:44pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I am so glad to read your message on the great grey owl. I too live in Virginia - near Mt. Vernon. I heard a hoot and went outside in the late afternoon and there it was perched in our Willow Oak on a lower branch. Two of my cats were running around underneath and I brought them all in. The owl was not afraid of me at all. I was convinced that it was a great horned owl because the Fairfax County website says that there are only 3 types of owls here - the screech owl, barred owl and great horned. I was convinced it must have been a big fat great horned with its ears flattened out and have feared it would kill one of my cats...until I read your article. Just bought a game camera and we will see if s/he ever comes back. Thanks "The Cat Lady"

posted on Tue, 05/12/2009 - 10:00am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

wow! it was really that close? `amazing! it was a good read! good luck with your owl spotting.

posted on Tue, 05/12/2009 - 11:24am
jd524's picture
jd524 says:

On 5-26-09 at 330 am I had six owls, which I believed to be the Great Gray, on my property. I live just outside of Brainerd, MN. From in the house I could hear them hooing. I went out with a flashlight and found them in my wooded lot. I saw two sitting in a tree together. There were another two in a tree about 50 fifty feet away from the first two. I could then hear another two in close proximity but was unable to see them due to thick brush. I believe there were six of them. After awhile they flew about 300 yards away and went into the trees and started their hooing all over again.

I have never seen an owl close to my property, much less six of them. I never have given them much thought, but I am now fascinated with learning as much as I can about them.

posted on Tue, 05/26/2009 - 3:01am
Susan's picture
Susan says:

I'm sitting here in my home office looking across a field in North Branch, Minnesota. There are 2 great gray owls pearched high above the field, searching for food, I imagine.

They are huge!

posted on Wed, 12/08/2010 - 4:38pm
Julie's picture
Julie says:

We recently had a great gray owl in our yard on the north side of
Brooklyn Park, very near the Champlin Park High School. He was around for a few days and now seems to have moved on. We would see him around dawn and again around dusk. We took several photos of him.

posted on Mon, 03/28/2005 - 9:51pm
bryan kennedy's picture

I got in touch with Julie and she was kind enough to let us share some photos of her Great Gray Owl sighting.

bryan kennedy
Science Buzz Site Admin

posted on Fri, 04/01/2005 - 10:16am
Ralph Mellor's picture
Ralph Mellor says:

I live in a small city In Rhode Island yesterday we had a bllizard I mean 20 in of snow high winds with the wind chill 5 below 0 gusting to 50 mph.

We were on my back deck for a smoke when my wife said to me look at that bird sitting in the tree.

I ran in and got my camcorder and recorded this giant owl. I was within ten feet of this beautiful creature By the time I got back in the house my hands weer frozen red. anyway this giant had no fear of me at all,the wing span had to five feet across.

posted on Mon, 02/13/2006 - 1:57pm
bryan kennedy's picture

Flickr is a website that allows you to share your photos online and tag them with relevant terms. Searching with the terms "owl", "greatgrayowl", and "greatgreyowl", you can find lots of photos taken by local Minnesotans of Great Gray Owls throughout the state.
bryan kennedy
Science Buzz Site Admin

posted on Wed, 03/30/2005 - 8:12am
mblomberg's picture
mblomberg says:

Any particular roads one can travel on in order for me to get a Great Grey on my Lifer List? A colleague here claims any road in Aitkin county near sunset and into twilight. My sibling on a farm in Pine City has sited them there. So I must get out and cruise. mjb

posted on Fri, 04/01/2005 - 2:13pm
Jessie's picture
Jessie says:

I saw a great gray owl near the south side of Brooklyn Park. The owl looked very much like the owl in the photos that Julie sent.

posted on Wed, 11/30/2005 - 9:15pm
jimmy torres's picture
jimmy torres says:

im a studing cryptozoologist i was wondering could the giant grey owl get up to 5 or 7 foot tall i think the past sightings of the mothman in ohio and w v in the 60's could have been a thunderbird or the giant grey owl.

posted on Fri, 01/13/2006 - 11:03pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

A large great gray owl is about 2 feet, 8 inches long -- quite a bit short of 5 to 7 feet. The biggest specimens weigh only 3 pounds or so. They also don't venture as far south as Ohio or West Virginia. However, there are other owls and bats in the area that could account for the "mothman" sightings. None grow to be 5 feet tall -- but eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, and prone to exaggerate.

For more info on the great gray owl, try this site.

posted on Wed, 02/15/2006 - 4:22pm
Katy's picture
Katy says:

We also live in Virginia and have a BEAUTIFUL GREAT GRAY OWL on our property. We live on a creek that feeds the James River and she will sit about 10 feet from us on a branch and make her distinctive female call and then follows with her territorial call of hoo hoo hoooo. She is the largets bird we have ever seen and obviously is not afraid of humans. She comes out in early morning and at dusk, I suppose to hunt. Though we hear her at night too from the deck out over the creek. She is a sight to behold and apparently not often found in Virginia.

posted on Thu, 12/07/2006 - 8:51pm
bryan kennedy's picture

Well, this was a big story back in 2006. I wonder if the Great Gray Owls have stuck around in their more southern range? Back in the late winter of 2005 people were seeing lots of owls up at the Warner Nature Center. I will have to check in with them this winter to see if they are still seeing them this year.

posted on Fri, 12/08/2006 - 12:01pm
Susie's picture
Susie says:

On 3 occasions recently by 3 different people, they have seen a huge owl with human facial features. They all estimate the creature over 5 foot tall. My aunt stared at it for a few minutes and saw it take off...there is no doubt it is a bird. My daughter and I heard what we think was it - it was close enough to scare the fire out of us. We were on Lake Greeson in Arkansas. Our family has three recently built houses there - I assume their territory was intruded upon. Has there been any other sightings in that area? I tried to google info without success.

posted on Sun, 11/29/2009 - 2:44pm
Susie's picture
Susie says:

Oh, the owl color as it has been seen is black - it has always been seen in the morning in daylight hours.

posted on Sun, 11/29/2009 - 2:47pm

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