Tracy Aviary’s Owl Forest is filled with eyes

The great gray owl is my spirit animal. If you happen to be an ornithologist, you would know it by its scientific name, Strix nebulosa. But if you’re a birdbrain like me, you might prefer its nickname, the great gray ghost.

I first saw this magnificent creature in an exquisite documentary called The Frozen Planet. The owl appeared majestically in slow motion, flying through a snowstorm straight at the camera. I couldn’t take my eyes off its fabulous flat face, its piercing yellow eyes and its enormous wingspan. Its ferocious intensity and rugged good looks immediately captivated me. I knew this owl, and I shared more than a similar personality and characteristics. We were, in fact, two birds of a feather.

In the years since, word of my fascination with owls has spread far and wide. Facebook friends now thoughtfully send me any and all owl pictures and videos. One pal even mailed a postcard addressed to Chris “Vanowlcur.” It was this love and respect for owls that brought me to Salt Lake City’s Tracy Aviary this past spring. The minute I learned the aviary had an Owl Forest, I knew it would be a hoot to visit.

The great gray owl, while not a Tracy Aviary resident, is the author’s spirit animal.

It’s not just because Tracy Aviary is said to be the largest and oldest of only two free-standing aviaries in the United States. Hidden in the aviary’s grove of 100 native conifers are nine species of owls and more than a dozen of these birds in total. But if you visit, be forewarned: Owls aren’t the most social of creatures (another reason I like them). Most are nocturnal and try to camouflage or hide themselves during the day.

They are also serious hunters. Upon entering the aviary’s forest, I was a bit taken aback to see a sign saying, “Owls are silent predators with very sensitive hearing.” I learned this firsthand when I made a slight noise getting my camera out of my backpack. Suddenly, several owls looked at me like I might be dinner. But despite the intimidating personas of owls, their forest is one of the aviary’s most popular exhibits. Some of these hooters, known on the aviary’s website as “celebirdies,”even take part in the bird shows there.

Burrowing owl

But what one will not find in this forest is a great gray owl. Tracy Aviary’s lead aviculturist Fred Kromm told me that, in the past, they’ve had some of these large owls—the world’s largest species of owl, in fact—but the great gray ghosts are northern birds and don’t do well in the hotter, more southern climates.

While this could have been disappointing news, I was relieved my spirit animal wasn’t there. It’s like that old adage that you should never meet your heroes. In real life, they might appear to be merely mortal.

Also, I don’t know how I would have felt seeing a great grey ghost in captivity. I once had a chance to see one in a Japanese owl bar (yes, they really exist there), but I decided not to go in. I was worried it might make me sad to see my spirit animal plopped up on a bar stool, nursing whatever alcoholic spirit owls drink.

Barn owl munching
on a mouse

The great gray owl is, after all, a noble-looking creature and somewhat rare. I’ve even heard it called the George Clooney of owls because of its distinguished appearance. So, while I quite enjoyed my time in the aviary’s Owl Forest, I don’t know if I would have liked seeing George Clooney in a cage eating mice and rats.

Now, because I am part owl, I wondered if I might get some special recognition from the other owls there. A nod of the head or a wink. They mostly ignored me. Except—just as I was leaving the forest—I got the feeling I was being watched. I turned my head slowly to the right and caught a barn owl staring straight at me. While my heart will always belong to the great gray ghost, the barn owl is also kind of a badass bird. Lightly colored with inscrutable expressions, these owls are dripping with intrigue and, perhaps, even a hint of danger. In fact, no sooner had this barn owl and I locked eyes, then suddenly it bolted off its perch and flew directly at me. Luckily, the cage stopped this barn bad boy from attacking. Although initially startled, I actually admired this owl’s spirit.

It knew a Vanowlcur was lurking nearby and was determined to protect its turf.

Maybe birds of a feather don’t always flock together.

Tracy Aviary Owl Forest
Liberty Park
589 E. 1300 South
Salt Lake City