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What is a Great Grey Owl?

By J.M. Densing
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The great grey owl is the largest owl found in North America. It is a raptor, or bird of prey. Its scientific name is Strix nebulosa. The great grey owl has a number of interesting nicknames that suggest the supernatural, including "phantom of the North," "the great grey ghost" and "spectral owl."

The great grey owl is mostly grey in color, with variations in shade from light to dark. The variations look like subtle striping around the face and on the ends of wings, and they give a speckled appearance on other parts of the body. The owl has white markings under its chin that look like a bow tie to many birdwatchers. The eyes are yellow with dark grey rings around them, and they appear quite small in contrast to the owl’s enormous head.

The great grey owl is one of the largest appearing owl species. Its length ranges from 24 to 33 inches (61 to 84 cm). Its wingspan is usually 55 to 56 inches (140 to 142 cm) and can be larger than 5 feet (1.52 m) on some birds. The large appearance is deceiving, however, because of the owl's extremely fluffy feathers. The owl's weight actually is relatively low for such a large bird — about 46 to 50 ounces (1290 to 1390 g), on average.

The great grey owl lives in the northern hemisphere. In North America, it is found in Alaska, Canada and parts of the northern United States, such as northern California, Wyoming and Minnesota. It also is found in Northern Europe and Asia. It prefers to live in dense forests, away from heavily populated areas.

The great grey owl is a bird of prey, and its main food source is small rodents such as voles, mice and squirrels. The owl waits silently until it locates prey, or it flies through the forest at a low height. After prey is found, the owl dives down and scoops up the prey in its strong talons. While hunting, it relies heavily on its sense of hearing. The great grey owl can hear prey moving around under snow as much as 2 feet (61 cm) deep.

The great grey owl nests mainly in high trees, using stick nests that have been abandoned by other large birds. The owl usually lays two to five eggs, with each one laid a day or two apart, and the eggs hatch in 28 to 30 days. The mother incubates the eggs, and the father is responsible for feeding the babies after they are hatched. The baby owls are virtually helpless at birth but they develop quickly, they are able to climb and leave the nest when they are about three to four weeks old, and they learn to fly a few weeks after that. Most young owls remain near the nest for several more months, being cared for by their mother before being able to survive independently.

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