Just 14 short miles east of beautiful downtown Walla Walla lives a creature so amazing and wondrous that most folks never expect to see one in their lifetime. Many are unaware that while they are in Walla Walla this spectacular animal is looking down on them from the foothills of the Blue Mountains. I am speaking of the Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa). This 27 inch long owl has a wingspan of 55 inches. It is dead silent when on the wing; its prey never hears it coming. This huge owl species is found across the northern hemisphere and into the Taiga of Europe and Asia. It is a raptor that demands attention by its very presence. I know it holds my undivided attention whenever we come across one. They have a certain feel about them, a majesty as they drill through you with their bright yellow eyes surrounded by ring after ring in the facial disk. They have a white eyebrow and moustache, mottled and banded body, long banded tail and broad gray wings . This owl is protected by both State and Federal laws. While the Great Grey Owl is intimidating to both human and other wild animals, it has a secret. For all its size in length and width it weighs only about 1.8 to 2 pounds. Its very large numbers of broad feathers provide the ability to fluff out and give the idea that it is huge and powerful; it is the master of the bluff. I have seen even the mighty Northern Goshawk flee a Great Gray.
Many folks wonder what a bird this huge feeds on; in spring and summer it takes chipmunks, pocket gophers and tree voles. During the winter months it perches on some spindly tree in broad daylight and will listen for mice that have burrows through the snow. As soon as it hears one the following happens: the owl cocks its head at different angles to determine the direction of travel, size of rodent and depth under the snow; sounds hit the facial disk that radiates out from around the eyes and then bleeds into the owl’s two ear openings that are asymmetrical as the right one is up and above the line of the mouth and the left opening is down and below the line of the mouth allowing the bird to perfectly tri-ungulate the precise position of the rodent traveling under the snow; then, on great broad, open wings, it floats down completely silent with its legs out and talons open as it plunges into the snow ; makes contact with the rodent and those big talons close around the prey. It then lifts off out of the snow and quietly flies up to a branch where it swallows the mouse whole, head first and tail last.
Great Gray owls are solitary creatures and are only found in pairs during the breeding season. Because no owl species in North America builds its own nest platform these big owls use other raptors’ nests or brooms in trees. Watch for Great Gray Owls along any of the mountain roads above Walla Walla. They are a diurnal species under cloudy conditions. If you see a Great Gray Owl it will change how you look at the world and wildlife from then on. These owls are great ambassadors for conservation.
Remember to be in awe of life! Walla Walla is a great area to enjoy all kinds of wildlife. Come see Walla Walla to believe it.
Photo by Merry Lynn Denny