Go Up North to See a Great Gray Owl

The great gray owl is the largest owl in North America, measuring over 2 foot tall! Find out where you can spot these elusive birds of prey.

How to Identify a Great Gray Owl

Bbdj16 KurtfriedersCourtesy Kurt Frieders
Field marks include yellow eyes and a white bow tie mark under the chin.

One of the most elusive and mysterious looking owls is the great gray. Despite being the largest type of owl in North America, the great gray is one of the most difficult to find.

Psst—follow these clues to spot the owl in your backyard trees.

great gray owlCourtesy Paul Danaher
Great gray owl in Minnesota

Great gray owls are easy to identify based on their large size, yellow eyes and a distinctive white bow tie mark under the chin.

Meet the smallest owl in the world—the elf owl.

Range and Habitat

310013732 1 Glenda Mueller Bnb Pc 2022Courtesy Glenda Mueller
To find these large birds of prey, head to the western states or far north near the Canadian border.

The species ranges across the forests of the West, in the mountains from California to Wyoming, as well as the boreal forest of Alaska and the western two-thirds of Canada. The more-than-2-foot-tall bird is perfectly camouflaged to reside in dense conifer forests.

Great gray owls rarely venture south, except when extreme cold forces them to seek food. Irruptions of this species only happen under the harshest of conditions.

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Nesting Habits

Couypc20 Danielle KennedyCourtesy Danielle Kennedy
Great gray owl in Yellowstone National Park

Rather than build their own nests, the giants take over structures built by squirrels, ravens or other raptors. Great grays will often return to the same nest year after year.

Great gray owls avoid populated areas, so they’re difficult to spot. But when caring for young, they’re more likely to venture out in daylight to hunt rodents.

Learn how to attract owls to nest in your backyard.

Diet

Bbdj16 JessicabotzanCourtesy Jessica Botzan
Heavy snow is no match for these owls as they hunt for food.

Great gray owls move out to open bogs, muskegs and meadows to hunt their small mammal prey. This owl is one of the mightiest and can plunge into deep snow to snag a vole snack. During winter, great gray owls consume up to seven rodents a day.

If you are lucky enough to see a great gray, resist the temptation to play calls or to feed it—both practices are unsafe for the owl. Instead, give the bird plenty of space. Even if your photos aren’t as great as you’d like, the memory will remain with you for forever.

Great Gray Owl Hotspot

309958273 1 Kevin Oneill Bnb Pc 2022Courtesy Kevin Oneill

From December to March, Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota becomes home to uncommon boreal birds from Canada. Check out more winter bird hotspots.

“On a cold winter’s day in Sax-Zim Bog, we spotted this great gray owl (above) hunting along a gravel road. It is amazing how good their hearing is. He kept turning his head from side to side listening for the sounds of a vole moving beneath the snow. After about 10 minutes or so, he dove towards the ground and pounced on his meal. The snow was about a foot deep, but that didn’t keep him from a successful hunt. I was using a Canon R5 and a 600 f4 to photograph him,” says reader Kevin Oneill.

Next, learn fascinating snowy owl facts (and where to find them!)

Ken Keffer
Professional naturalist and award-winning environmental educator and author Ken Keffer has penned seven books connecting kids and the outdoors. Ken is currently on the Outdoor Writers Association of America Board of Directors. Ken was born and raised in Wyoming. He's done a little bit of everything, from monitoring small mammals in Grand Teton National Park to researching flying squirrels in southeast Alaska. Ken enjoys birding, floating on lazy rivers, fly fishing, and walking his dog.