Driving back from the metro today along Highway 35, I saw a bunch of crows mobbing something in the distance. Once I was closer, I saw that it was an owl. Given its size and shape it was likely a Great Gray Owl, but unfortunately 70 mph doesn’t lead to good or safe bird observation, so I can’t say for sure. I wrote about the owl irruption year last week, but wanted to continue the owl story a bit more this week, talking about Great Gray Owls in particular, and this was totally reinforced by the sighting this afternoon.
As a naturalist and educator, you get to have some very unique experiences. I have had the opportunity to hold live owls in my hands, which is truly an amazing thing. Unfortunately in the case of Great Gray Owls, both times I have held them they were dead. But both provided incredible learning, so will tell you a bit of what I learned about these amazing owls.
The first time I worked with a dead Great Gray Owl, I was working for Great Lakes Aquarium and the educational exhibit Hunters of the Sky, on birds of prey. We wanted to feature some of the more unique birds that could be found in this area, and being a brave and willing soul, I was given a dead Great Gray Owl that had been donated from a freezer for the exhibit. I don’t know the cause of its demise, but frequently, it is from starvation in a rough year, or contact with a car. All I know is that I was commissioned to harvest parts that could be used for an informational cart with an interpreter. So I chose a beautiful summer day to get to work, armed with lots of pins, cardboard and borax and salt, a sharp knife, and a sunny comfortable place to work outside. By the way, for the sake of anyone who is getting grossed out, or squeamish at this point, let me assure you that this was not a bloody, smelly process at all, as the animal had been frozen soon after death- which was likely during the winter anyway.
I removed and pinned the wings and tail- that was the easy part. I had learned that Great Gray Owls have a unique method of thermoregulating during the summer- they have a bald spot under their wing that they can expose when it gets hot. Sure enough, there they were, one on each side! I also gained a huge appreciation for why they need to thermoregulate. They are really a huge ball of feathers! The feathers on the breast of that bird measured between 6 and 8 inches long, and there were a lot of them. It was a long reach to find the skin and body inside. That’s a lot of insulation especially on a warm summer day. Great Gray Owls are the largest owl in North America by size, with lengths measured up to 33 inches long and wingspans up to 60 inches, but both Snowy and Great Horned Owls while a bit smaller in measurements, weigh quite a bit more in general than Great Gray Owls.
I harvested the legs, and as expected they were feathered all the way to their talons. Carefully I pinned one leg with the talons extended and one with the talons clinched for comparison. Then it was on to the more challenging aspects of this job. I wanted to preserve the skull, and also show the ear placement and shape. Skinning the body was easy, but it was harder work to preserve the skin and feathers of the head. However, I was able to maintain the rough shape and location of the ears. We have all heard that owls have ears placed at two different heights on their heads, this proved to be true along with truly different shapes. One was fairly round and one more crescent shaped. These differentiations of location and shape are incredible tools for triangulating sound and one of the reasons Great Gray Owls hunt primarily by sound.
I was able to pin and dry the skin to save these ear shapes, and even managed to get the skull clear of muscle and feathers for the most part. I proudly set it aside knowing there was more work to be done to finish preserving that for display. Then I made the first big mistake of the day, I went inside to get something I needed, can’t remember what, but when I came back the skull was gone! There were telltale “gronks” in the background that told me who the culprits were, the ravens had stolen the skull! Needless to say I had a few choice words to say to the ravens, but couldn’t really blame them- I was after all, the dumb one who left it within reach. The rest of the owl, feathers and skin, wings, tail and feet with talons proved to be incredible teaching tools for educating the public about these amazing birds. No doubt some of those artifacts are still around at the Aquarium.
Having worked with the Great Gray Owl in this way, I was ideally prepared for the opportunity that happened while teaching a couple of years later. It was during the 2004 irruption year where there were Great Grey Owls everywhere. I was calmly teaching chemistry, when one of my students informed me that I should see what was in the back of his pick-up. Being ever cautious, I asked if I should be worried, to which he replied “oh no, I’m pretty sure its dead!” Of course, he had a dead Great Gray Owl that he had found along a roadside in Duluth. So we abandoned chemistry and headed for the parking lot for a look. I was able to point out all these unique features on this owl from the learning I had done on the previous owl adventure. Definitely one on my favorite ways to teach chemistry! I was also able to teach the students that it was not legal to have these birds to keep. The student gave me the owl, and I called the DNR to ask what should be done with this bird. As it turned out, since the bird was in good shape, they wanted it for a study being done on the stomach contents of the birds, and also for the opportunity to have a good specimen for mounting. That year many of the Great Gray Owls that died made their way to museums all over the world as stuffed and mounted specimens to educate about this usually elusive and solitary bird.
Keep your eyes out for these amazing birds and here’s hoping you get the opportunity to see one this winter, before they begin to head back to their more northern homes on the edge of the Arctic. They are truly a wonder to behold, and generally not too skittish as long as you keep a respectful distance. I can’t look at one of these birds without thinking about all those feathers!
These updates are made possible by a generous donation from David and Rosemary Good.