The Mysterious Case of the Pacific Northwest’s Vengeful Owls
A number of recent bloody encounters with aggressive birds of prey in the Pacific Northwest has frightened residents enough that they've started arming themselves with sticks and flashlights and strapping on hard hats before going out at night
Just after midnight on a cool, clear night in late April, Lance Douglas left my house on the remote Blakely Island, in Washington’s San Juan archipelago, and started walking home through a half-mile section of Douglas fir and cedar trees. We’d just finished dinner and a few beers, and Lance was hardly out of my gravel driveway when he felt a hard push, like a hand against his shoulder. He turned around but saw nothing.
A few seconds later, something landed on Lance’s head and began digging its sharp talons into his scalp. Warm blood flowed through his hair. As he flailed his arms in agony, a pair of feathered wings descended over his face, covering his eyes.
Lance thrashed until the bird withdrew, flying 20 feet ahead to a low branch. The two stared at each other in the pale light of the quarter moon. With blood dribbling down his head, Douglas pulled his phone from his pocket and snapped a photo, then hurried for home. He dodged four more swoops during the walk.
Lance, who works as an oil cleanup specialist in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, sought a friend’s help to clean his wounds the following morning. She found six half-inch lacerations on his scalp. “They hurt like hell,” Lance says. They took weeks to heal.
I told the kids to stay away from the owl, no matter how cute it was. The bird had sent me clear message: it is here to stay.
“I’m not going to lie and say I don’t think about it,” he says. “Having spent most my life on this island, where nothing can hurt you, this changes the way you think. It took away some of the safety and joy of being here.”
The picture on Lance’s phone shows a two-foot-tall bird of prey, brown streaks running down its white feathered chest, its face pointed upward, away from the camera: a barred owl.
What happened to Lance, it turns out, wasn’t an isolated incident. Karl Ostrom, a 77-year-old who co-directs a business development company, was clawed or hit on six separate occasions in the late fall of 2010 while running in the forested area of Bridle Trails Park near his home in Kirkland, Washington. Pat O’Rourke, a 56-year-old massage therapist from Seattle, was hit four times between 2008 and 2013 on the wooded trails in Seattle’s Discovery Park. Justin Musada, a 47-year-old accountant and runner, was left bloodied by an owl in Lake Stevens, Washington. The local news covered the incident.
Further inland and south, in Salem, Oregon, a barred owl has attacked runners so frequently in a wooded park that locals named him Owl Capone. Park rangers there posted caution signs in the fall of 2015 depicting a stick figure shielding itself from an attack bird. The parks department in Anacortes, Washington, has received about 50 reports of owls hitting or striking people in the past decade, says Dave Oicles, a park ranger there. “We had one elderly gentleman who went to the hospital because he got scratched on his scalp and knocked down,” he says.
Lance told me about his attack a few months after it happened. It sounded like something out of a Hitchcock horror film. I have two young children, and a skull-knocking bird of prey patrolling our front yard is concerning. I took to Facebook and wrote a post on the page of a local nature group: Hey, anyone been attacked by an owl? The response was surprising: six people replied, saying they’d been accosted in the way Lance had. A dozen more said they’d been hit by the wing of a swooping bird or had their hats snatched clean off their heads while walking around Seattle.
“An owl attempted to carry my husband off last November while he was on a night jog,” one woman replied. “Came home with an ashen face and five deep scratches on his scalp. He heard nothing.”
Native to the East Coast, barred owls are large, stocky birds with rounded heads, dark eyes, and white and brown feathers lining their chests. Their wingspans can grow up to four feet wide, and the serrated feathers on the leading edge of their wings reduce noise in flight, making them silent in their approach.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first documented the birds on the west coast of Canada in 1959. Then they spread like a wave southward, arriving in Washington in 1973. Paul Bannick, a 52-year-old conservation photographer and author of Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls, grew up in Seattle and has spent thousands of hours observing the bird’s behavior in their habitat. “When I was young, there was no chance of seeing a barred owl,” he says. “Today, they’ve become so numerous, I could probably, on most days, find one in several urban parks in the city of Seattle. They’re so abundant, you can find them everywhere.”
Like the arrival of any invasive species, the southward migration of barred owls is pushing out a less-robust native: the spotted owl. Barred owls have killed or flushed these smaller birds from their nests. Many spotted owls have fallen silent, which makes finding mates and reproducing difficult. Barred owls are more territorial and aggressive than their spotted counterparts, and their diets are highly adaptive—they eat everything from crayfish plucked from creeks to worms from your lawn—making them tough to dislodge from an environment once they’ve settled. They also give birth to more young, more often, than spotted owls, and each barred owl claims a smaller territory. “So you’ll have many barred owls overlapping with spotted owl territories and intimidating spotted owls in those territories,” Bannick says.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have been monitoring endangered spotted owls in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California since 1994, and some have noticed a trend: where barred owls settle in, spotted owl numbers decline. Robin Bown, a biologist with the service, says the population of spotted owls near Cle Elum, Washington, dropped 80 percent between 1992 and 2012, while the barred owl population thrived. In the Oregon coastal ranges, she says, the spotted owl population has dropped 70 percent since 1998. In 2013, officials decided to move forward with a four-year, $4 million plan to reduce the barred owl population in certain key areas in the Northwest. The plan is simple: hire and train professional hunters to shoot up to 3,600 barred owls, which would account for an estimated 90 percent of the populations in those areas.
Even if only a few barred owls are left, they’ll probably return, Bown says. But removal by rifle is the only plan right now to save spotted owls, though it’s unlikely to reduce brutal encounters between barred owls and people. “If we let the spotted owl go extinct in my lifetime, which could easily happen,” Bown says, “we have no options. They’re gone. If we keep some alive, the next generation can decide if this isn’t worth doing anymore. It gives the next generation the chance to make the decision.”
I’ve seen the barred owl that hangs out near our house on Blakely Island—the one I think attacked Lance. One evening in late July, our houseguest, a teenage girl named Sophie, had returned from a walk. She told me, “I just saw the cutest owl. And I couldn’t believe how close it let me get.”
Removal by rifle is the only plan right now to save spotted owls—though it’s unlikely to reduce brutal encounters between barred owls and people.
Sophie led me to a big white owl perched on a low branch near the road. I approached slowly, hoping the owl would chicken out before I did. At ten feet, I stopped. The bird hadn’t so much as shifted its weight. It gazed blankly in my direction, seeming not to notice me or care I was there. With a few more steps I probably would have been able to reach out and touch it, were I that brave. Instead, I turned around. Back home, I told the kids to stay away from the owl, no matter how cute it was. The bird had sent me clear message: it is here to stay.
Why exactly barred owls are attacking people across the Northwest is tough to answer.
Owls breed in springtime, when Lance was attacked. There may have been fledglings on lower branches or even on the ground near where Lance was walking, prompting the attack, says Jon Nelson, curator of wildlife who oversees the Birds of Prey Center for the High Desert Museum, in Bend, Oregon.
But reports of aggressive owls in the fall have been well documented, says Chris Anderson, district wildlife biologist of King County, which covers the metropolitan area around Seattle. By then, birds that were born in the spring have been left to fend for themselves, he says.
Could it be that owls are simply mistaking people for prey? Bannick doesn’t think so. “Your ponytail does not look like a rat,” he says. He suggests that maybe it’s because the amount of daylight in the fall mirrors that of the spring nesting season and triggers a release of hormones that make the owls more territorial. Another hypothesis: “floater” owls that linger in the territory or homes of other owls and feel the constant threat of attack. “These birds become hypervigilant and extra sensitive,” Bannick says.
Whatever the reasons, some Northwest residents are taking steps to protect themselves from angry owls. Some owlers and joggers who take to the parks in the dusky and dark hours have taken to wearing hard hats or bicycle and lacrosse helmets that fasten under the chin. Some wear safety goggles to protect their eyes. Pat O’Rourke carries a stick on walks in Discovery Park and waves it over her head whenever she sees or even hears an owl. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests yelling and clapping, firing a gun into the air (using blank rounds), or banging cans together. If that fails, the state recommends donning a hat or helmet or walking with an umbrella.
During his series of attacks, Karl Ostrom started talking to his avian accoster, negotiating in hopes of reaching an understanding. “I’ve made friends with wild creatures before,” he says. “Including bears and eagles when I lived in northern Minnesota. The thing that was different about the owl was the stony face—the lack of changing expression or position. He just looked you straight in the eye.” These days, when Ostrom goes out for his nightly runs, he wears two headlamps: one to light his way forward, the other on the back of his head, pointed upward, to blind any owl coming in for an attack.