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Great gray owls thrive closer to human areas

They’ve been called phantoms of the North – the great gray owl. Their haunting calls and striking size make them a captivating sight in the snowy Alaskan wilderness. We picture these owls hunting voles in isolated forests, far away from any hint of human activity. But here’s a twist: new research suggests that might not be the whole story.

Owls in human neighborhood?

“We like to think of our wildlife, especially in Alaska, as existing in pristine wilderness untouched by humans,” said Falk Huettmann, professor of wildlife and ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).

But his team’s computer models show something surprising: great gray owls might be more common in areas closer to human development. The areas include small towns, roads, and even structures like the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

This definitely challenges the stereotype we have of owls as these solitary hunters of the deep woods.

The power of machine learning

So, what’s the secret behind this discovery? Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the heroes of the study. The research team turned to a state-of-the-art computer system, arming it with a treasure trove of data.

Initially the systems were fed temperature information. The team analyzed how the mercury dips and rises across various locales, understanding the chilly conditions these owls might favor. Then, the human footprint – every road, town, and structure that marks the presence of human activity.

But what about the owls themselves? Here’s where citizen science shines. The team tapped into vast databases like, along with local birdwatching groups and other enthusiastic observers. Each sighting and each note added another piece to the puzzle.

The computers sifted through this wealth of information, learning and discerning patterns that draw a line between specific environmental factors and the presence of these majestic owls. This task, deciphering the habitat preferences of one of nature’s enigmas, was a feat that only became feasible with the advent of such advanced computing capabilities.

Why do the owls reside near humans?

Food availability

Urban and semi-urban areas can offer abundant food sources for great gray owls. These areas might attract rodents and other prey, making them appealing hunting grounds for the owls. The edges of urban areas, in particular, can provide a rich interface of habitats for owls to hunt.

Nesting sites

While great gray owls typically nest in large trees, the outskirts of human settlements or areas with scattered human structures can offer suitable nesting opportunities. These areas might have the large, mature trees that owls need for nesting, along with a lower presence of predators.


Human-made structures and altered landscapes can create microclimates that may be more favorable for the owls or their prey. For example, areas cleared for buildings or roads might open up spaces for hunting or lead to changes in local vegetation that attract prey animals.


Great gray owls, like many other wildlife species, have shown adaptability to human-altered landscapes. Their presence near human populations indicates their ability to exploit new opportunities for food, nesting, and territory that come with human development.

Study significance

These owls carry a certain allure, a mystique that seems to cloak them in an aura of mystery. Their Latin name, Strix nebulosa, translates roughly to “foggy screech owl,” evoking images of these creatures as ethereal beings, emerging from the mists of the wilderness.

This name alone paints a picture that feels almost magical, as if these owls belong more to the realm of folklore than to the scientific world we understand today.

However, as Huettmann suggests, there’s a gap between this romanticized view and the reality uncovered by science. “I think we are seeing that it’s not scientifically accurate to hang onto these traditional narratives and myths that are perpetuated about wildlife.”

This insight challenges us to rethink our perceptions, urging us to set aside age-old tales and look more closely at the factual evidence presented by modern research.

Other owl preferences besides human proximity

Great gray owls, with their distinctive large size and piercing eyes, have specific habitat preferences that go beyond their unexpected proximity to human-populated areas.

Their choices reflect a balance between the availability of prey, the suitability of nesting sites, and the need for adequate cover and territory size. Understanding these preferences helps us grasp the broader ecological needs of these majestic birds.

Dense forests for cover and nesting

Great gray owls have a strong preference for dense forests, particularly those with a mix of old-growth trees. These environments offer crucial cover from predators and harsh weather conditions.

The forests also provide essential nesting sites. Great gray owls do not build their own nests; instead, they often rely on abandoned raptor nests or natural tree cavities found in older, larger trees common in mature forests.

Open areas for hunting

While dense forests are crucial for nesting and protection, great gray owls also require access to open areas for hunting. These can include meadows, clearings, and the edges of forests.

Such open habitats are vital for the owls’ hunting strategy. They perch silently before swooping down on prey. The availability of open hunting grounds close to nesting sites in dense forests creates an ideal habitat for these owls.

Wetlands and riparian areas

Great gray owls also show a preference for wetlands and riparian areas. These environments are rich in biodiversity and offer abundant prey, including small mammals like voles and mice.

The interface between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems provides a diverse hunting ground for the owls, allowing them to exploit a variety of prey species.

Owls prefer minimal human disturbance

Although the study reveals that great gray owls can and do live closer to human settlements than previously thought, it’s essential to recognize that these owls still require areas with minimal human disturbance for optimal breeding and hunting.

Too much noise, light pollution, and direct human interference can negatively impact their ability to thrive.

Will more owls be seen near humans?

This doesn’t mean your local park is going to be overflowing with great grays. However, it does paint a more nuanced picture. We’re starting to get a clearer understanding of where these birds thrive.

And here’s the even bigger bonus: this same supercomputing tech can help us learn about all sorts of other animals, even ones we know almost nothing about.

It’s a reminder that even as wild as the Alaskan landscape is, humans shape it in complex and unexpected ways. It also shows us the power of technology in unlocking the secrets of the natural world.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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