Cascades Raptor Center

Resident Raptor - Great Gray Owl


Gandalf, Courtesy of Brian Davies Cascades Raptor Center does not currently have any Great Gray Owl resident birds.

As many may know, we released our Great Gray Owl, Gandalf, in the summer 2009; but we have kept him on this page because his story is so inspiring.

Gandalf had been found in early 2005 in NE Oregon, starving and with two fractures of the left wing, one very close to the wrist. The wing had partially healed but both fractures were overridden (the ends of the broken bones were not in alignment and were healing partially side by side rather than end to end) and one was close enough to the wrist that he no longer had complete range of motion. He could not fly well. He was transferred to us for education by Blue Mountain Wildlife in Pendleton.

Gandalf X-ray March 2005However, during four years in captive care, the bones miraculously remodeled-he may have been still a young bird when he was injured and their powers of recuperation can be amazing! X-rays taken in December of 2008 compared to those taken in 2005 show a striking difference. From December to March 2009 and again for most of May and June, Gandalf proved himself in our 100' flight cage, as well as successfully maintained weight for weeks strictly on live prey. We decided to release him in early summer, rather than early spring, so there would be lots of prey available as he familiarized himself with his new territory, without the pressures of harsh mountain weather, mate selection, and breeding right away.

Gandalf X-ray December 2008A release site was selected near Oakridge, in the Cascade Mountains about an hour southeast of Eugene, with the help of a US Forest Service biologist doing a Great gray owl survey in the area. Although this site is on private property and not part of the survey area, it represents prime habitat-nesting Great gray owls have been found two miles away. The landowner generously al­lowed us access and we put up three USFS nest platforms in trees.

Gandalf Release, 2009On a gorgeous day in June, staff, volunteers and Gandalf's adopters met at a school in Oakridge and 40 of us caravanned to the release site. We were in awe at the beauty of the fields and mountains and even disturbed an elk calf as we walked to the edge of the woods. Gandalf took off beautifully, posed for a long time in a tree as he got his bearings-and then flew off. Many of us had tears in our eyes but no one doubted that this chance for freedom was the best thing for him. The biologist and land­owner have done some informal monitoring, with no sightings to date-but no news could be good news.

We sorely miss his majestic presence and sonorous hoots-there are not many Great gray owls on exhibit anywhere in the United States. But there is no question in our mind that this was the right decision for him. We are a rehabilitation and release facility first and keeping a bird unnecessarily in captivity, no matter how attached to him we are, is not what we want for any bird. Our best wishes go to Gandalf for a long and successful wild life.

Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)

Courtesy of Barbara Gleason The tallest and one of the largest owls in North America, the Great Gray Owl can be recognized by the large head with a prominent facial disk that lacks ear tufts. The facial disk is grayish white with distinct concentric, semicircular bars of brown. The "eyebrows," lores, and chin can be grayish white, giving the bird a white "moustache" that is broken by a black "bowtie" in the middle. The sexes are alike with the female larger and sometimes darker. Upperparts are grayish brown, broken by grayish white flecks and bars. The tail is very long, wedge-shaped, and dusky gray with nine bands. The wings are broad and the toes are short and heavily feathered. Despite its large appearance, the Great Gray Owl is 15% smaller than the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), with the bulk of the Great Gray Owl made up of feathers (perhaps to survive in the cold climates it inhabits). Eyes are yellow and appear small due to the large facial disk. Flight has been described as slow and effortless, much like a moth. However, they are capable of great bursts of speed.



  Male Female
Length 52" ave. 52" ave.
Wing Span 32 - 35" 33.8 - 36.6"
Weight 1.5 - 2.6 lb. 2.0 - 3.7 lb.

Status - The Great Gray Owl is both federally and state protected and is considered a sensitive species. Suitable habitat is negatively effected by logging and clear cutting in many areas. Forest fire suppression limits the number of suitable nesting sites (large open snags), limiting population density. Rodenticides used in grazing areas decimates prey base for the Great Gray Owl.

Habitat - These owls prefer subalpine coniferous forests through dense boreal and montane coniferous forests. In the Sierra Nevadas of California, mixed conifer forests and red firs at high elevations are preferred. In all cases, forests are chosen when they border open spaces such as meadows, marshes or bogs where the owls prefer to hunt rodents. Trees are used for nesting and roosting with the bird close to the trunk for camouflage. During winter the birds may move out of the forest to more open fields for better hunting success.

Diet - These rodent specialists usually take small rodents up to 100 grams (3.5 ounces) as prey. Some 80-90% of their diet may be made up of small rodents (voles, mice, gophers and shrews most important), with a much smaller percentage being larger mammals and birds. Usually this bird hunts early in the morning and again in the late afternoon and near dusk, with modified daytime hunting during the short winter days. The male will hunt more diurnally during breeding season when he is supplying the female and chicks with food. Hunting usually takes place from perches where the owl listens and watches for prey. Once a prey has been located the bird will make a short stoop to the location of the prey. They rarely hunt while flying. Like other owls, the Great Gray has excellent hearing and can locate prey by acoustic cues alone. Large, asymmetrical ear openings allow them to precisely locate prey. Live prey is detected under snow cover and using their clenched feet, the birds break through the snow as much as 45 cm (17 inches) to grab the prey with their feet. These birds are able to break through an icy crust on snow which could support the weight of an 80 kg (176 lb) human. During the summer they might use the same technique to break into mammal burrows. Due to the size of their prey, Great Gray Owls rarely directly compete with larger owls such as the Great Horned Owl, who selects much larger prey.

Call - Deliberate series of soft and low pitched single or double syllable hoots that gradually drop in frequency and decelerate towards the end of the call. Usually used during breeding season and for territorial disputes, but some populations can be heard calling year round.

Nesting - Pairs usually begin nesting in March with nesting peaking in mid-April and late May. Pair bonds appear to be monogamous but unknown in duration or if the birds remain together outside of breeding season. They compete with other raptors such as the Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) for nests and breeding density depends on nest site and prey availability. Nests are often old raptor or corvid nests or broken top snags. No nest modification is done by the pair except the female will sometimes make an impression in the bottom of the nest before laying eggs. Pairs will use man-made nest structures and have shown good nest success at those sites. 2-5 eggs are laid, with the female doing the incubating and the male hunting for prey. The eggs hatch at approximately 29 days and the young are independent at about 4-5 months. Mortality of the young is high, with Ravens (Corvus corax) taking eggs, and Great Horned Owls preying on young birds.

Most Common Problems - Collisions with motor vehicles is the greatest cause of mortality in Great Gray Owls. They are also shot, collide with barbed wire and are electrocuted on transmission lines. As with many other birds of prey, habitat loss and fragmentation is the greatest risk to the overall survival of the species.

  ANCA Member

Cascades Raptor Center is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization (Federal ID No. 93-1038827) dedicated to wildlife rescue and public education to enhance appreciation, respect, and stewardship of the natural world.


CRC logo art by Jeanne Hammond-Elliott.  Drawings by Barbara Gleason & Karl Edwards.  Photographic sources noted as provided.