The Owl and the Mistletoe went to the tree….Mistletoe said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl” How charmingly sweet you sing! O let us be married! too long we have tarried…
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
 They danced by the light of the moon,  the moon,  the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon                                                                                                                  (with apologies to Edward Lear’s The Owl & the Pussycat)

Great gray owls have a relationship with mistletoe that might seem as contrary as the Owl and the Pussycat who married and danced by the light of the moon in Edward Lear’s nonsensical  poem. You might call owls and mistletoe similarly mismatched romantics.  For that matter, we might call people and mistletoe hopelessly entangled when you consider lovers kissing under a mistletoe as sleigh bells ring.

Mistletoe? Really?  Why would we want to kiss under this plant? Why would a great gray owl seek one out? Isn’t this plant the bane of foresters and the parasitic strangler of trees?  Yep. That’s the one. And it’s mistletoe that creates a natural nest platform on a tree that’s ideal for a great gray owl love nest.

I’m contemplating the owl and the mistletoe while still reeling from seeing not one, not two, not three, but six great gray owls in the rainy larch, ponderosa and Douglas fir forests a half hour my home in La Grande, Oregon. Yesterday, our field trip group spotted three adults (in three separate nesting areas) and three fuzzy nestlings perking up from an artificial nest box high up on the side of a pine.

great gray owl
In the low light, I had trouble with camera settings this day, but in spite of the fuzziness, you can get a sense of the silent majesty of the great gray owl  that stands almost three feet tall, with a five-foot wingspan, yet weighs less than four pounds. 

Rain fell. The forest floor gleamed silky green grasses and lupine leaves cupping jeweled droplets. I’d signed up for the field trip as part of the Ladd Marsh Bird Festival. Our group of ten swished through the dripping forest.  Mistletoe was not on my mind.

That world showered us with a rain of owls, of black-backed woodpeckers, Lewis’s woodpeckers, Williamson’s woodpeckers, red-breasted nuthatches, yellow-rumped warblers, red-eyed vireos, and so much more–including a vociferous pair of red-tailed hawks nesting close to a great gray owl nest.

yellow lupine with raindrops
Yellow lupine in the forest gathers raindrops on leaves until they shimmer like ice, like diamonds or crystals.

We trekked after our guide Mark Penninger (Wallowa-Whitman NF biologist) into an area where firewood cutting is strictly forbidden to save the snags and encourage the growth of big trees that are important habitat for owls and many more creatures of the realm. Right away, we spotted several freshly cut snags (dead trees) poached by firewood cutters. While wanting to completely enjoy the day, I knew that entering our national forests comes with a personal responsibility too.  The field trip clearly illustrated a need to support more patrols, more law enforcement and most important, a forest travel plan that prevents ATVs and other motorized vehicles  from running rampant off the roads, making it that much easier to poach firewood.

The group looks  for owls in a forest that burned a few years ago, a fire that left most trees scarred and still thriving.

As a writer, I might be able to help, too, on the education side, like turning around the traditional view of mistletoe in western forests as a sign of disease and death. Here’s how mistletoe came into the morning. We asked Mark where great gray owls naturally nest and what he hopes to see for replacements to the nesting platforms. The answer? Mistletoe.


I found this photo of a natural great gray owl nest on a platform of mistletoe in Yellowstone NP (credit Robert Miller: See his Blog and more photos).

Great gray owls never build nests, so they look for one already built for them. A broken off snag will do (yet another reason to keep our dead trees standing!). An old hawk nest could work as well. But mistletoe? That’s a perfect big ball on the side of a tree for a nest–the more the merrier.

If you excavate a mistletoe ball on a tree, Mark tells us, you’ll find bones where pine martens have brought their meals for dining.  The flower nectar and berries are food sources for birds, moths, beetles, bees, flies and mammals.  More than 90 species of birds in 10 families might be called mistletoe specialists–plucking up their berries and distributing seed onto trees.

The mechanics of a mistletoe parasitizing a tree sound alarming. A sticky seed on a tree grows a peg that penetrates the tree and drills down to pipe in nutrients. That peg is followed by a root called a haustorium that plugs the tree host to draw away nutrient and water. It takes two to six years to grow big enough for the plant to have blossoms and berries.  Mistletoes are host-specific and there are multiple species around the world.

While that parasitic description sounds a bit nasty for an individual tree, consider that over the eons our forests have evolved with mistletoes and they play a key role in the dynamic life and death of a forest. Even the leaves when they fall are so rich in nutrients that they can replenish the host tree itself.  (Find out more  in this Natural History of Mistletoe article  in Scientific American).

Dwarf mistletoe is a common parasite of Douglas fir in eastern Oregon, and causes the tree to produce witches brooms that are abnormal growths in response to the plant. The good news for wildlife? You get the benefit of the plant and the dense brooms for nesting and shelter. The bad news for foresters? It’s not the best for the tree growth, unless you’re willing to take the bigger perspective on what truly keeps a forest “healthy.” We might also give this highly evolved plant a bit of credit for its ingenuity on finding ways to latch onto trees high up above the ground. this plant has the ability to shoot its seed upwards into a tree and land. Rather than falling off a branch or the trunk, the seed sticks, because its encased in a sticky substance.

Witches brooms caused by mistletoe. You can look at them as bad for the tree or good for the ecosystem–lots of shelter and the individual mistletoe plants offer sustenance too.

For a great gray owl, the mistletoe need not be analyzed, argued about, dissected or given a thumbs up or down.. This bird needs a place to nest, and an intact, disturbance-free forest replete with big trees, snags, downed trees, logs and habitat for mice and other tasty rodents.

As for us? I’d argue that as participants in forest ecology, we ought to simply accept mistletoe and maybe even go a step further. Wander in the forest with a loved one and when you see that mistletoe overhead, take time for a wild kiss.  (Find out more about this ancient tradition in Pucker Up! Why do people kiss under the mistletoe? ).

great gray owl3