Great Gray Owl

The great gray owl is much more common in Island Park than it was at the peak of the timber harvest era.

In 1993, the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station published a report stating that there were no great gray owls documented in Forest Service surveys in Island Park. This owl, classified as a night-active predator that may also hunt during the day, is at the extreme southern end of its range in eastern Idaho and at the time was considered quite a rare find.

I thought about that as I watched a great gray owl hunting from a perch in my front yard last week, not 50 feet from my door in Island Park. It was the middle of the day and the second time I had seen a great gray owl that week.

Since the 1990’s, scientists have learned a lot about the great gray owl, Strix nebulosa. Great gray owls can be found worldwide across the boreal habitats of Canada, USA, Scandinavia and Russia. We are indeed fortunate to have a population in eastern Idaho as only seven percent of the great gray owls in the world (an estimated global population of 190,000) live in the Lower 48. Other than a population in the Sierra Nevada Range in California, ours is also the southernmost known population. Although the range map on Cornell University’s, All About Birds, website shows great gray owls don’t range below the Snake River, the 1993 report indicated numerous sightings in the Caribou range southeast of Idaho Falls.

As the name implies, this is our largest owl in length, but it’s just a bunch of feathers. Both the great-horned owl and the snowy owl weigh more on average. However, with a four-foot wingspan, the great gray owl is still huge and to see one gliding through a forest conjures up terrifying thoughts of pterodactyls.

A great gray owl has a round head (no feather tufts sticking up) and yellow eyes that seem small in the large prominent gray and white facial disk. There will also be a white “bowtie” with black center beneath the beak. Overall, the great gray owl is, no surprise here, gray.

Great gray owls are forest birds, preferring mature forests for hunting and raising their young. They do not make their own nests but rather use nests abandoned by ravens or hawks. Manmade structures are readily accepted as well as long as they are placed in forested habitat.

The list of animals that serve as great gray owl food is long. However, they are mainly specialists on small mammals. In many populations, voles make up over 90 percent of their diet. In some Idaho populations pocket gophers may be half their diet.

In their range, great gray owls play a role in keeping rodent populations in check. It takes a lot to keep an adult fed and in winter, when caloric demand is highest, an adult will eat seven vole-sized animals a day. It may take nine voles or mice a day just to keep four hungry nestlings happy.

Watching a great gray owl hunt is like watching nature in perfection. With asymmetric ears (one higher than the other) and a huge facial disk that funnels sounds to the ears, the owl can pinpoint a rodent under a foot or more of crusted snow from dozens of feet away and pounce on it as if laser-guided.

As I thought about the 1993 report, it dawned on me that today there is a lot more habitat for great gray owls in Island Park. Tens of thousands of acres of forest harvested in the 1980’s have finally recovered enough to support the owls’ lifestyle. Sometimes I am glad that time marches on.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho