Owls are mystical beasts that are well loved by both birders and those who casually look at birds. There are many species that captivate those looking at them: Burrowing Owls, Barn Owls, a variety of fishing-owls, Stygian Owl, Elf Owl, the list goes on and on. Great Gray Owls and Snowy Owls are two that come up a great deal in these discussions but there is really only one that should be mentioned. Some may say that it is difficult to put a value judgement on owls, to figure out which owl is the best owl, but the decision is not even difficult. Snowy Owls are far superior to all other owls so they are clearly superior to Great Gray Owls.
What? How dare I say such a thing! Great Gray Owls are the gray ghosts of the north woods and the high mountain meadows. They are mystical and amazing and they glide in on silent wings at dusk and grab voles from near the feet of lucky birders! Their very scarcity and the difficulties one must go through to see them make them so much more worth the effort! Acres of breathless text have been written about the beauty, the grace, the size, of Great Gray Owls. The people who wrote such tripe are wrong wrong wrong.
Great Gray Owls are alright if you aren’t a true owl connoisseur. You look at the stature, the rarity, the mystique. You can’t help but think that this owl is the one you want to see. But, really, the romance built up around them is, like their size, mostly fluff. They aren’t much more than an oversized Barred Owl with a better publicist. Oh, they are rare where you live. Great. That means you have to drive or fly hours north to see them, and that’s if you’re lucky and it’s an irruption year when they come moderately closer than usual. And then, when one gets reported and you chase it (Because, honestly, you’re not going to spend what little time you have to bird in the subfreezing temperatures of the north trying to find your own great gray, are you?), you are invariably sharing the sighting with fifty other mouth-breathing birders in layers and layers of khaki getting angry about photographers baiting the owls; locals of Moose Piss, Minnesota, getting angry about trespassers trying to see the owl; and getting angry yourself about clueless noobs asking if the Downy Woodpecker nearby is a Three-toed Woodpecker.
There is nothing transcendent, mystical, or awesome about 99% of sightings of Great Gray Owls. The darned things are so dumb that they tend to land on birders. I’m not impressed.
Snowy Owls, on the other hand, are absolutely amazing creatures that are properly lauded in popular culture from Harry Potter to an entire episode of PBS’s Nature called “Magic of the Snowy Owl.” There are even a variety of crafts based on Snowy Owls that you can use to entertain children.
Snowy Owl irruptions are relatively predictable and often huge, with birds arriving as far south of their normal breeding range as Florida and the Bahamas. This means that birders don’t have to go out of their way to the far north to track one down. Heck, their numbers are such that it’s not difficult for a dedicated birder to find their own owl without having rely upon the reports of others and sometimes you even get to enjoy multiple Snowy Owls in a battle royale all by yourself.
Even the four-letter banding code for Snowy Owls, SNOW, is awesome, as shown by the SNOW cone above.
The white feathers of Snowy Owls allow you to see the blood from their most recent kills still staining their plumage, which is about as metal as any wild animal is likely to get. Speaking of which, Snowy Owls go after a wide variety of prey, with perhaps their most impressive being sea ducks taken in the dead of night as the ducks roost out on the open ocean. Compare that to the usual prey of Great Gray Owls, the vole. Clearly, Snowy Owls are much more murderous and macabre.
But beyond their killing ways Snowy Owls genuinely inspire non-birders to become birders. Their tendency to show up in wide open areas means they are often visible from a long way and their beach-going habits make them ideal for humans to view. They are so inspirational that an entire research effort, Project SNOWStorm, was crowdfunded to allow researchers to put tracking devices on Snowy Owls to see what they are up to when they are out of sight.
No matter you knowledge of birds, your dedication as a birder, or any other rubric by which you measure your birding or birdwatching ability, you will always stop to look at a Snowy Owl. And you will likely try to point it out to anyone else who is around. Not only that, but you’ll likely have the chance to do so without going hundreds of miles out of your way. It’s not even close. Snowy Owls are the best owl out there and they beat Great Gray Owls without even having to leave their lazy roost on the beach.