Creature Feature: Yosemite's Great Gray Owls

Great gray owl.

Great gray owls occupy a special place among Yosemite's birds. Photo by Mason Reid, NPS.

Great gray owls are not only an endangered species, they're also the largest North American owl. Yosemite National Park is home to about 75% of California's population of these impressive birds, and new research suggests they're even more unique that previously believed.

According to information from the park,

New evidence suggests that the Sierra Nevada is home to a genetically distinct population, compared to great gray owls outside of California. Great gray owls are of special interest in Yosemite because here they reach the furthest southern extent of their global range, and they are isolated by hundreds of miles from the next closest population in far northern California.

Researchers estimate there are only about 200 to 300 individuals in California, and about 75% of the state’s population resides in Yosemite.

If you're fortunate enough to spot one of these birds, you'll likely not forget it.

The Great Gray Owl is a symbol of Yosemite’s wilderness and an icon of the peaceful mountain meadows which it inhabits. This largest North American owl lures birdwatchers from around the world, and those who have glimpsed this magnificent animal remain captivated for a lifetime.

This rare and endangered owl is the largest North American owl—standing as tall as 2 feet with a 5-foot wingspan with its distinctive piercing yellow eyes accented by large facial disks. In the winter, great gray owls move downslope to snow-free areas where they can more easily access their rodent prey; they can be active at any time of the day or night, preferring to hunt in open meadows and clearings within the forest.

When owls locate prey, they swoop silently down from their hunting perch, and if they are successful, they scoop the small mammal up with their talons and retreat back into the forest with their meal.

Supporters of national parks and similar protected sites like to point to their importance in preserving the habitat needed for many species of wildlife, and these owls are merely one example.

In recognition of Yosemite’s bird diversity and critical breeding, stopover, and wintering habitats, Yosemite National Park is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.

A U. S. Forest Service study on Great gray owls throughout their range found that "Nesting occurs within mature and old-growth coniferous and deciduous forests …In Yosemite National Park, great gray owl nests were found only in large, broken-top trees."

Trees with broken tops may not garner many points in most developed landscapes, but we trust they'll continue to be welcome in national parks. These impressive birds are among the beneficiaries.