It's true - just as the title of this story says - when it comes to owls of the New World, they really don't come any bigger than the great gray owl, Strix nebulosa, or, for the sake of brevity, GGO. The adult has a wingspan that averages about four-and-a-hall feet; the female being larger then the male (a physical trait among all the owls and diurnal raptors). They stand about 30-inches tall and weigh in at around four pounds - and are armed with very large, strong, needle-like talons on very large powerful feet!The species name, nebulosa, is the Latin for "misty" or "foggy," the coloration of the owl's feathers that help to conceal them when roosting during the day. Those same feathers are so soft in texture they make the owl's flight almost silent.
I can testify to you, a GGO can hold its own against a lot of competition and enemies. Take bird banders for example: My good friend, Tom Rodhouse and I met up with a female near the Sycan Marsh that about knocked his head off while we were banding the babies. As I inspected the gashes in Tom's head, his beautiful wife, Casey, exclaimed, "Tom! You've got to be more careful! We haven't had any babies yet!" (They've taken care of that, however, in spite of Tom being carved up by owls, they now have two beautiful daughters...)
On one hand, great gray owls are presenting serious problems to current forest management techniques, but on another they could prosper. The biggest problem they face is the increased attention to preventing catastrophic wildfires in the forests of the Northwest. There is one element of a forest that is irreplaceable to great gray owl babies - a jackstraw under story. This is essentially a bunch of dead and dying young trees leaning haphazardly against and on top of one another.
Because adult owls are none too selective about where they nest (to my knowledge, owls do not "build" a nest, they use whatever they can find that will hold eggs), the nest is usually too small to hold the babies as they grow - and they grow quite rapidly. In three to four weeks, they have outgrown their so-called "nest" and either fall out, or are pushed out to the ground below.
That would be fatal to most birds, but baby great gray owls have warm fuzz to keep them warm, and powerful feet to crawl up the jackstraw trees and gain a safe place away from predators. It is there on these precarious perches that the parents care for them and it's from there they will eventually fledge.
The conflict is that fire managers believe the jackstraw under story to be "ladder fuels" (debris that allows a fire to make its way to the top of trees) and remove it as fast as they can. But without these "jackstraws/ladder fuels," baby owls pushed out on the ground have no way to escape predators, and that's that.
To mitigate this dilemma, wildlife biologists have designed a platform large enough to hold the babies and mounted contraption to the side of a tree about 50 feet above the surface - and this practice works most of the time. Owls are not the brightest box of bulbs in the forest, but eventually they'll catch on - we hope!
While removing the under story is not beneficial, clear-cutting is a possible plus for great gray owls. Their favorite hunting grounds are meadows where they relentlessly dine upon voles, mice, pocket gophers, other rodents, rabbits and hares.
If there's one creature that silviculturalists do not like to see in a new tree plantation it's gophers. On the other hand, if there's one creature owls love to see in a clear-cut or tree plantation, it's gophers. The problem with that situation is that sometimes the powers-that-be can't wait for natural predators to help reduce gophers, so they use poison. If an owl eats a poisoned gopher, it's curtains for them both.
Crosswater Golf Course, south of Sunriver, has a resident great gray owl. There was also one nesting for years across the Dechutes River from the Sunriver Marina, and a couple of others along the Newberry Crater road. When I lived in "Little Los Angeles," south of Sunriver in the early '70s, my son, Dean, came running into the house one day after school, exclaiming, "Dad! There are Great Gray Owls all over the place out front!"
Sure enough when my wife and I went out to look, there were two young fledglings perched in a lodge pole across the road from our house.
Right now, as we speak, Great grays are nesting. Stop on a deserted forest road some dark night and try hooting one up. This does, however, require patience and a very deep voice. I can't do it unless my arms are behind my back and stooped over to reach that low pitch and give the typical, slow, moaning hoot.
Back in the '50s, Ed Park and I were calling great grays on the old Newberry Crater road on a dark gloomy night. I was standing in the middle of the road, bent over, hands behind my back, and moaning that low hoot when suddenly headlights from a side road pinned me in their light. Someone appeared out of the darkness, dressed in a dark blue uniform, and a burly voice said, "What is this, some kind of religious ceremony...?"
Then a flashlight shined in my face, and another male voice called out from the dark, "Awww, let it go, Kenny," he said with a chuckle; "That's that goofy naturalist, Jim Anderson, from Bend, he's just callin' owls!" Turned out to be my two friends, OSP game officers, Kenny Roach and Avon Mayfield waiting for poachers.
If you come upon a great gray owl nest, please send an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) of where and when, and I'll pass the report on to my young friend, Tristan Cox, in LaPine. He's conducting an inventory for me in that area. But whatever you do, please keep away from the nest. If it's a nasty, cold day or night, you could kill the newly hatched babies with your curiosity. For the first few weeks of their lives, baby birds are reptilian and cannot create their own body heat; mom has to keep them warm. Besides, dad might just knock your head off.