Great Grey Owls
on the Bruce Peninsula 

Great Grey Owls on the Bruce Peninsula was a surprise discovery for ornithologists and others. Sadly, the story of their visit had an unfortunate conclusion.

Two Great Grey OwlsTwo Great Grey Owls

Last January, some majestic visitors landed on the Bruce Peninsula. 

Great Grey Owls, normally residents of northern Canada and Europe, made their way to Grey-Bruce in the largest migration in recent memory, according to Bob Gray of the Ministry of Natural Resources. 

Unfortunately, the Great Grey Owl has not fared well in this new environment. Mark Wiercinski, of the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory, banded 44 owls after they were discovered in this area. But in less than a year there may only be 10 to 20 of these birds left on the peninsula, he said. 

The tallest owl in North America, the Great Grey can reach a height of 22 inches. Its wing span is four to five feet, and its weight may vary between 800 grams and 1.5 kilograms. (The smallest bird banded by Wiercinski weighed 844 grams.) It is all grey with some white streaks, no ear tufts, and yellow eyes. 

Great Grey Owl on StumpGreat Grey Owl on Stump

This bird's natural habitat is the northern coniferous forests and bogs. They like to hunt for their prime food of mice and other small rodents in open spaces. Wiercinski said that an associate once saw a great grey with a frog. This is not as unusual as it sounds. Birds who eat small animals are also opportunists and will take whatever is available to sustain themselves. 

In the winter, they hear mice burrowing through the snow and swoop down to the point of attack, diving head first into the snow, catching their prey in their beak. Great Greys are equally adept with their talons. During his banding project, in virtually every instance, the owl picked up Wiercinski's bait with its talons. 

Wiercinski said one reason these magnificent birds may have come to the Bruce Peninsula is that there was a population explosion of Great Grey Owls in Manitoba two years before the migration. 

This may have led to a shortage of food, forcing some of the birds to move on. 

So why are they now disappearing from the peninsula? 

It is believed that great greys don't like flying over large stretches of water. 

These owls tend to fly short distances and make frequent landings. Unlike hawks and eagles they don't soar high in the air, they fly close to the ground. 

Great Grey Owl in FlightGreat Grey Owl in Flight

Thus, as they flew northward, the presence of Georgian Bay on the east and Lake Huron on the west squeezed their flight path until they became trapped on the peninsula. 

Great Grey Owls that have been sighted on Cove Island appeared to try to fly offshore but soon returned to the island, Wiercinski said. Though it's not known for sure, there's a strong likelihood that they are either unaccustomed or unable to fly for extended periods of time, making a large body of water a formidable barrier. 

Therefore, the Great Grey Owl found itself in a new and unfamiliar territory. Why have their numbers dramatically decreased in such a short time? The answer seems simple: humans! 

These birds are usually found in areas where there are few or no humans. The Great Grey Owls can swoop along close to the ground in search of their prey without fear. However, on the Bruce Peninsula, where roads cross both the open and forested areas, traffic is a major hazard. Many motorists have reported hitting these birds, and it's suspected that cars may be the main cause of the death of so many owls. 

When asked if there was anything that could be done to help the remaining owls, Wiercinski said that it's usual for 75 per cent of birds who are part of an eruptive migration to fail to survive. 

It it not known for certain how many great grey owls came to the Bruce Peninsula, or how many were able to leave. All that is known is that there are probably only 10 to 20 remaining. Cars may have taken their toll on these birds, but there may have also been other factors. No one really knows for sure.

A version of this story originally appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times in 1998.

Discover More About the Bruce Peninsula

Getting to the Bruce Peninsula is a relatively easy driving trip. Here are driving directions from three regions to the peninsula.

Barrow Bay Ontario a Picturesque Georgian Bay Community owes its origin to the once-thriving Bruce Peninsula lumbering industry. Today it is a quiet summer get-away!

Bruce Peninsula Lumber History details the impact of the forest products industry on the development of the region.

Bruce Peninsula Lumbering provided the stimulus to develop and grow the pioneer economy on the newly settled Bruce Peninsula. 

Bruce Peninsula Municipal Politics: No matter what the venue, or the issue, seldom is a popular decision made that suits everyone. 

Bruce Peninsula Travel Routes were often a matter of debate because in the early years, land travel was virtually unattainable for settlers and lumbermen alike.

Aboriginal History: Bruce Peninsula has a long indigenous heritage not just for the native nation living there today, but for other native groups as well.

Aboriginal History: the 1836 Treaty made promises to the native peoples of the Bruce Peninsula which did not last long before everything changed again.

Aboriginal land history continues the story of aboriginal land issues on the Bruce Peninsula. How it happened is a point for discussion by everyone.

Settler Impact on Bruce Peninsula Natives was not only from the imposition of treaties, but also from British military plans.

"Half Mile-Strip" Treaty made it possible for a relatively smooth overland connection to be built between Owen Sound and the Lake Huron shoreline.

Catherine Sutton: aka Nahneebahweequay was a hero, fighting for her Indigenous rights and those of her family.

Allenford United Church history details not only some important information about that community's church, but also about one of the founders of this Ontario community.

Colpoys Bay Vista - Awesome! A short drive from either Wiarton or Owen Sound is one of the most magnificent views to be found in the province of Ontario!

Dyer's Bay Ontario: Began as a Lumbering Settlement and today it is a wonderful vacation retreat.

Elsinore Ontario is the southern-most point on the Bruce Peninsula, located about half-way between Owen Sound and the Lake Huron shoreline.

Forest Products on the Bruce Peninsula contributed greatly to the growth and development of that region of the province of Ontario.

Gillies Lake: aka Ghost Lake has a mysterious past as its original name, Ghost Lake, implies.

Great Grey Owls on the Bruce Peninsula was a surprise discovery for ornithologists and others. Sadly, the story of their visit had an unfortunate conclusion.

Pioneer Campers: Hope Bay mostly considered the peninsula untamed wilderness and some of the locals were not about to disappoint them!

A Pioneer Community: Driftwood Crossing, at the southern-most part of the Saugeen/Bruce Peninsula was at the midpoint between the Georgian Bay and Lake Huron coasts.

Pioneer Missionary James Atkey arrived on Colpoys Bay to minister to the native community near Oxenden until a treaty uprooted his parishioners.

Pioneer tourists first visited the Bruce Peninsula in the 1800s and the region continues as a great recreational and tourism destination today!

Pioneer Vacations on the Bruce Peninsula got an eerie start in the Hope Bay region of the peninsula.

Lighthouses  Lighthouses were vital to Georgian Bay Sailing.

Sauble Beach Ontario has seen it all. A fishing outport; a sawmilling centre; and an internationally acclaimed tourist resort area!

Sauble Beach  This popular beach is known as Canada's Daytona Beach.

Lion's Head  Sailors often sought refuge from the stormy Georgian Bay waters in its well-protected harbour.

Park Head  Grand Trunk Railway in Park Head Ontario was an important railway depot on the Bruce Peninsula when in 1894 the first train chugged through Park Head.

Stokes Bay  Welcomed fishermen as their first non-native visitors. Today, if you are a fisherman, you will also probably want to try your luck landing a walleye, lake trout or any of the other game fish that live in the coastal waters of Lake Huron.

Tobermory Ontario has a rich history and, is the northern- most destination point for travellers visiting the world famous Bruce Peninsula.

Tobermory Ontario Tourism is focused on shipwreck diving which has become so popular that tourism has become an important part of that community's economy. 

Tobermory pioneers experienced a life in a community that was anything but the tourism hive of activity that it is today.

A Flowerpot Island cruise is not only entertaining, but it is also very educational as you will see things that you have never viewed before!

Wiarton Ontario  This historic community was a great place to live in the early settlement days and still is a busy tourist stop on your way up the Bruce Peninsula.

Wiarton  had ambitions to Succeed but while success brought them a railroad and other ventures did not have a sweet ending for many in the town.

Wiarton Ontario’s First Newspaper  A catalyst in supporting road construction and bringing the railway to Wiarton in hopes of making the town the economic leader of the area. But disappointment looms...

Wiarton news: 1890s, as seen in the pages of the local newspaper revealed problems typical of today's communities 

Wiarton Beet Industry was to be a great boost to the town's economy. Instead, it left most people with a bad taste in their mouths.

Travel the Bruce: Owen Sound to Wiarton  A wonderful journey from Owen Sound to Wiarton.

Travel the Bruce: Wiarton to Tobermory  Relaxing and historic journey.

Bruce Peninsula  The Bruce Peninsula is a compelling place, with a rich history, to visit. Once you have traveled there, we guarantee that you will return, again and again!

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