Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fluff and Feathers

Great Grey Owl

A friend of mine and fellow ‘watcher,’ Chris O’Brien, just sent me her essay on watching a great grey owl.  Most of her essay involved the thrill of actually watching a great grey in the wild, but she also did a great job of describing the owl’s mass of feathers.  Chris explained our ‘largest owl’ really isn’t our largest.  I know that doesn’t make sense.  Bear with me.  With Chris’s permission, I’m going to paraphrase some of what Chris wrote about great grey owls: 

Great grey owls are magnificent. They're dimensionally the largest owls in North America, but they're mostly feathers. The first great grey owl I ever handled was killed by a car. The owl's body was huge, but lighter than it appeared. I poked my fingers into its head feathers, they sank the length of my forefinger before they reached bone. Picture its nine-inch-across head: three inches of feathers, three inches of skull, and three more inches of feathers. Wow!

The largest common owl in the United States is the great horned owl, which can take prey up to the size of a several-pound skunk, rabbit or cat; the diet of the “larger but smaller” great grey is primarily ounce-sized voles and other small mammals. Having handled both, I can attest that great horned owl feet and talons are much, much more powerful than those of great greys. Here are average dimensions (variation is due to sexual dimorphism; as in most birds of prey, females are larger than males).
                                      Length  -   Wingspan -  Weight -        Weight

Great Grey Owl         24”-33“      54”-60”          24-60 oz       700-1700 g

Great Horned Owl    18”-24”      39”-43”          32-88 oz        910-2500 g”
"Mortimer", my mother's tame barred owl.
Reading Chris’s description of all those feathers heaped upon great grey owl’s body reminded me of an illustrating challenge I faced years ago.  I was illustrating “Birds of Prey of Wisconsin” for my mother, Frances Hamerstrom.  She wanted to draw the relative size of a barred owl’s body in relationship to the actual size of the barred owl.  The barred owl is another really fluffy owl.

My immediate response was, “But how?  I can’t create this out of my imagination.” – No problem.  My mother promised to send me a dead barred owl, another victim of our highways.  She would airmail me a frozen owl packed with dry ice.  It would stay nice and fresh for the trip. 

But fate in the form on a late spring blizzard intervened.  The owl didn’t arrive and didn’t arrive.  The mail wasn’t moving on schedule.  I stayed home at least two extra days waiting and then needed to make a grocery run.  I asked the nice marine living next door would he please be sure and watch for the mailman and sign for the package?

Of course he would.

Still no package.  That evening I was just sitting down to dinner when the phone rang. “This is the Post Office.  You have a package here that you really need to pick up – RIGHT NOW!  It smells!   We’ll stay open until you get here.” 

I went tearing out the door only to find my marine neighbor laughing himself to tears.  He’d muffled his voice and mimicked the post office.  …. But, still no package. 

Fortunately my long-delayed owl arrived the next day and the dry ice had done its job. 

But I wasn’t quite out of the woods yet.  At the time our twins were around two years old and a bit of a handful when I wanted to sit down and ‘do art.’  For once I hired a baby sitter for the afternoon and took the owl out of the freezer early in the morning.  By late morning I realized my darn owl wasn’t thawing.  The feathers were insulating it.   … and I had the baby sitter coming. 

I had two choices.  Either roast my owl in the oven, or hang it in the sun on my cloths line.  The cloths line idea won. 

So if you ever drive by my house and see something very odd on my cloths line, just remember there might be a good reason.
My illustration of the barred owl and all its feathers.  


  1. Wonderful and educational story. Had me laughing out loud! Fascinating difference in Great Gray and Great Horned. Who would have thought?

  2. Gave me a chuckle! Crazy neighbor. Lol some day I'll see an owl in person and not just a loose feather in my yard.

  3. THAT would be quite the sight! What a wonderful story. It's also a very good example of how far we're willing to go for our art. I was also intrigued by a bird with a depth of 3 inches of feathers around itself! Nature is just amazing.