“The Most Beautiful Forest Dweller”


I SAW it for the first time one day in June—“the most beautiful forest dweller,” as it has been called by some here. It is the great gray owl, or, as it is sometimes known, the Lapland owl.

This enthralling giant owl makes its home in parts of Finland and northern Sweden as well as farther eastward in Siberia, Alaska, and Canada. It is secretive and difficult to find if you do not know where its nest is. Once you have found the nest, you will also find that the owl is quite fearless.

Studying the Hunter

I was able to study the finely marked male Lapland owl as he scouted for food. He would suddenly leave a bough and try to catch a mouse. Did he get his prey? Oh, yes! I could clearly see a little rodent hanging in his talons as he moved upward in slow, imposing flight upon huge wings that stretched 50 inches [140 cm] from wing tip to wing tip.

The Lapland owl does not breed regularly every year as do many other owls. This giant owl feeds only on small rodents, so some years, when these are in short supply, breeding stops completely. During other years, when food is plentiful, there may be four or more young ones in each nest.

 Choosing a Mate

Spring is the mating season for owls, and the female chooses her mate carefully, though the handsome appearance of her suitor is not her primary concern—as it may be for many females of the human species. According to studies by some bird watchers, the male has to show that he is a skillful hunter. Before any plans are made for a family, he has to provide the female with food.

If plenty of mice are available and the male is a skillful “breadwinner,” the food he gives the female will cause her to put on weight. This increased weight acts as a signal to her body, indicating how many eggs it is to produce.

The male is now entirely responsible for the hunting, which requires a great deal of energy. He is urged on by the female’s begging call, since all her energy is concentrated on producing eggs and caring for these valuable assets.

Locating the Nest

Through my binoculars I watched the beautiful male as he regularly passed overhead carrying prey. Eventually, I was able to locate the nest. Lapland owls do not build nests of their own but often take over nests of brushwood from other birds of prey living in the forest. In the absence of a nest, the owl may use a dead stump.

In the nest, I found two little downy chicks gazing in open-eyed wonder at everything around them. With a chorus of begging calls, they turned their hungry eyes toward their mother, who was sitting nearby watching. Getting too close to the young ones at this time could be hazardous. If the female feels that her young ones are threatened, she will come flying in silently and attack the intruder with needle-sharp talons. So it is important to be wary and study owls at a respectful distance.

Feeding and Training

On arriving at the nest, the male shifted the prey from his talons to his beak and presented the mouse to one of the young. The feeding of one young bird is accompanied by tremendous sound effects from the bird next in line to receive a mouthful.

After a young one has eaten its coveted meal, it exhibits an almost comical change of behavior. Its countenance, which had up until then been bright and alert, suddenly changes, and the chick starts to act as if it were drunk! All its energies are directed toward digesting the food, and it soon collapses into a shrunken pile of soft, fluffy feathers. But the sibling closest to it has slowly started to get bright eyed and is on the way to recovering from the intoxicating effect of its last feeding.

Things go on this way until the middle of June. By then the young will be four weeks old and can flutter out from their nest, urged along by their mother’s call. At first, they climb about in the trees, with great skill. There predatory animals are not as much of a threat as they would be on the ground.

In time, the chicks move between the boughs using their wings, thus practicing flying. After a while, they develop their own ability to fly and hunt. Also their appearance changes, so that they too may be considered ‘beautiful forest dwellers.’

[Picture Credit Lines on page 18]

© Joe McDonald

© Michael S. Quinton

[Picture Credit Lines on page 19]

© Michael S. Quinton

© Michael S. Quinton