Posted by: atowhee | November 11, 2021


I got a very clear email from a close birding friend, Karl Schneck.  It was not his intention but he sent me off on a deep dive into ornithological history, taxonomy, European-American science links and breaks.  Turns out I could find some answers.  Others are still elusive.  I shall persevere, the inquiring mind wants to know.  Here is Karl’s innocent sounding email:

“I read this in an article and wondered if you can explain how Strix nebulosa was once the scientific name for the Barred Owl and is now the name for the GGOW. Hey, should be right up your alley of ornithological history and GGOWs!

“When Henry David Thoreau encountered an injured barred owl (then known as Strix nebulosa) at Derby’s shop in Concord, Massachusetts, on December 14, 1858, he noted in his journal, ‘Solemnity is what they express, —fit representatives of the night’.”

True and baffling.  So I started researching. 

The first known scientific description of a Great Gray Owl was done by Johann (John) Forster, a German scientist who lived some years in England.  It is likely the owl’s skin was sent from Severn River by Andrew Graham, a Hudson’s Bay Company official in northern Canada. So in 1772 Forster published this in a journal of the Royal Society:

So here we have a German naturalist describing a bird collected in a British colony on a continent he not yet seen.  What happened next?  Who decided the “grey owl” was Barred, not Great Gray?

Just over a decade after Forster’s cursory description of the GGO was published, Pennant, Thomas, 1726-1798) published what was intended to be a complete description of mammals and birds of the Arctic.  His ARCTIC ZOOLOGY was published in 1784-7.  His entries will confuse a modern taxonomist.  He avoids Linnean binomials.  Pennant’s book has two different entries that hint at Great Gray Owl—neither satisfactory.  Where is the white bow-tie, the bold white arcs on the facial disk? 
“114. EAGLE.

  • Great Horned Owl, Edw. 60.—Latham, i. 119.
  • Great Grey Owl, Josselyn, 96.—Lawson, 145.
  • Jacurutu, Margrave, 199.
  • Stria Bubo Uf, Faun. Suec. No 69.”

[Page 232]

“120. SOOTY.

  • Cinereous Owl, Latham, i. 134, No 19.—BR. MUS.

“O. With a whitish bill: bright yellow irides: circlets consist of elegant alternate lines of black and pale ash-color: head, hind part of the neck, and coverts of wings, sooty, marked with narrow bars of dirty white: primaries deep brown, with broad bars, composed of lesser of dusky and pale cinereous: tail most irregularly marked with oblique strokes of brown and dirty white: the breast and belly whitish, greatly covered with large oblong blotches of dusky brown: as a singular mark, from the chin to the vent is a space, about an inch in breadth, entirely naked: legs feathered to the feet. WEIGHS three pounds: length two feet: extent four.

Inhabits Hudson’s Bay the whole year. Flies in pairs. Feeds on Mice and Hares. Flies very low; yet seizes its prey with such force, that, in winter, it will sink into the snow a foot deep; and, with great ease, will fly away with the AMERICAN HARE, No 38, alive in its talons. It makes its nest in a pine-tree, in the middle of May, with a few sticks lined with feathers; and lays two eggs, spotted with a darkish color. The young take wing in the end of July.”

Surprisingly Pennant and Forster had collaborated on previous nature work so how did Pennant then completely by-pass his friend’s nebulosa? Did he refuse to trust a German scientist? Further, Pennant lists no Latin name in his brief entry for Barred Owl.

Alexander Wilson’s American ornithology was published before he died in 1813.  Later it was updated by other naturalists in the Philadelphia area which was then America’s science capital because Quakers were not anti-science.  Later editions of Wilson had Great Gray Owl in the index, under the Latin species name of cinerous. An 1832 edition of Wilson’s ornithology says: “…another species, mentioned  by [Charles Lucien] Bonaparte as inhabiting Arctic America, and met with by Dr. Richardson during the last northern expedition.  It is the largest of the American owls…”

Richardson himself reported “It is by no means a rare bird in the Fur Countries, being an inhabitant of all woody districts lying between Lake Superior and latitudes 67 or 68, and between Hudson’s Bay and the Pacific.”

Back in England Richardson, co-authored the next Arctic wildlife treatises:


His co-authors were William Swainson and Willam Kirby.  The books were published from 1829-37.  Here is their name and illustration for the Great Gray Owl.  Richardson himself may have been one of the first naturalists to see a nesting Great Gray while in Canada. To him the Barred was “nebulosa.”

Audubon’s publications all refer to this species as Great Cinerous Owl. He only saw one alive, a winter fly-by near Boston Harbor. His drawing was based preserved specimens he saw in London. His bird biographies appeared 1840-1844. He calls the Barred Owl “nebulosa.”

Thomas Nuttall wrote the first handbook-sized guide to American birds, A Manual of the Ornithology of the United Sates and Canada. He also repeats Richardson’s account of the species from seeing them in Canada. Richardson cut down the nest tree, captured the two owlets, raised them until they escaped at two months. Nuttall cites Pennant, Bonaparte and Audubon, using the dual names “Great Gray or Cinerous Owl.” His handbook’s updated edition was published in 1840 and stayed in print for decades, the only such handbook available.  Nuttall does recognize that the Great Gray Owl is found in both America and Scandinavia. I n his book the Barred Owl is “Strix nebulosa.”

As late as 1902 Florence Merriam Bailey’s Handbook of the Birds of the Western United States, has cinera attached to the Great Gray Owl.  Current knowledge at that time still saw the Great Gray as a winter visitor to the states south of Canada.

In 1913 Chester Reed published his pocket-sized Bird Guide—Water Birds, Game Birds and Birds of Prey.  He is now using nebulosa for the Great Gray Owl. The first instance I have found so far. Somebody somewhere had made a taxonomic decision that is still respected today more than a centurty later. The first nest of the species in Yosemite had not yet been discovered.  It would be decades before nests were found in Oregon, Washington, Yellowstone, Montana. He still thought the GGO was only a visitor here below the border.

An owl on a branch

Description automatically generated with low confidence

All subsequent USA publications I found used “nebulosa.”

Some characters in this story, alphabetically listed:

Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey (1863-1848) was an American ornithologist and nature writer who’s been referred to as the “First Lady of ornithology”. She organized early Audubon Society chapters and was an activist for bird protection. She wrote extensively on birds for both a general and a scholarly audience. She spent a lot of time in the field in the western states.  She was an effective promoter of bird-watching as opposed to bird shooting.  She wrote the first book promoting use of “opera glasses.”  Her handbook was the first to focus on the western U.S.

Johann Reinhold Forster  in  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of LondonVolume 62.
Published:  01 January,1772
Forster, Georg: With his father, Johann Reinhold Forster, he emigrated to England in 1766. Both accompanied Capt. James Cook on his second voyage around the world (1772–75). Georg Forster’s account of the journey, A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World (1777), was based on his father’s journals; it later appeared in a German version.  It was Thomas Nuttall, a British naturalist living in the U.S. that named a tern after Johann Forster in 1832.

Andrew Graham (1733 – 8 September 1815, Prestonpans) was a Scottish naturalist and a chief factor with the Hudson’s Bay Company.  He spent several years at Fort Severn. The Severn River’s in northern Ontario. The Severn’s headwaters are near the western border of the province. From the head of the Black Birch River, the Severn River is 610 miles long and its drainage basin area is 39,700 sq miles.  Its source is Deer Lake and flows northeasterly into Severn Lake, then by a second section to Hudson Bay where it ends at Fort Severn.

Thomas Nuttall, along with John Townsend, was the first naturalist to walk across the western U.S. to the Pacific.  They arrived in Oregon in 1834. He and Townsend came with fur trappers.  They camped for some time on Sauvie Island.  Nuttall kept traveling.  Townsend was a doctor and worked for some time for Hudson’s Bay Company along the Lower Columbia but also traveled extensively inland.  Together they added numerous western species to the list known to science at that time.


  1. Sorry, Harry… not really, because I enjoyed the read.

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