[Tweeters] Dive Bombing barred owls

J. Acker owler at sounddsl.com
Tue Sep 7 13:14:57 PDT 2021

While I am not an owl expert, I have extensive field knowledge of Barred Owls.

For whatever reason, Barred Owls in the Pacific Northwest are a bit larger and a whole lot meaner of temperament than their eastern cousins. Most of the encounters on humans that I am informed of occur either during the nesting season or in the late summer and fall, with many of the encounters reported to me occurring in September

The nesting season encounters are more understandable – the defense of the young is instinctive to Barred Owls as it is to us. Barred Owls during nesting season are a bit more aggressive in their defense of young than many other species. Barred Owls go on eggs in the Puget Sound area the first week in March. That would infer that encounters during the nesting season are being conducted by adult birds that know what they are doing. Anyone who has been smacked in the head by a Barred Owl knows full well that it wasn’t an accident.

The fall encounters are a bit more complex to understand. When I first started hearing about reports of encounters in the fall, I suspected it was due to young, inexperienced birds attempting to claim territory, or by adult birds in defense of an established territory. Young Barred Owls disperse in August from the natal site, wander around a bit before setting down in a new territory or remain as “floaters” loosely using other pairs’ territory and keeping a low profile.

While the ARAB (Autumnal Recrudescence of Amatory Behavior) theory may be at least partially responsible for the fall encounters, I believe that these encounters have a lot more to do with perceived territorial violations. Resident Barred Owls are much more vocal now, as if by calling they announce to any dispersed juvies in the area that "this turf is taken; move on". Adult Barred Owls that had young this past season are just now completing their molt (some of them, particularly the males as their molt pattern lags the females) are looking a bit ratty, especially about the head. Molting requires additional calories, which are now available to them since they are no longer feeding young, however, the food supply is starting to dwindle as it is the “survival of the fittest” and the end of the breeding season hits. Following molt, barred owls will begin packing on body mass in anticipation of next year's breeding cycle. Adults have experienced winter and are most likely proactive in obtaining food while they can, also increasing their turf defensiveness.

I was not aware of any fall encounters that took place during daylight. Most of the encounters occur within a few hours of sunrise or sunset and are targeted against joggers and runners primarily. Wearing head ware doesn’t seem to alter the likelihood of being strafed, but it does prevent talon to skin contact. Encounters are initiated from behind in virtually every instance, unless it is in defense of young. Even then, the first encounter is usually from behind.

While I know the scientific world cringes when we anthropomorphize animals, individual Barred Owls have personalities and behaviors that are both predictable and change with the seasons. I know of individual Barred Owls that are almost hand tamed and docile but turn into the devil during nesting season. As a species, they are both adaptable and intelligent (hence their ability to overrun the PNW).

Several years ago a trail and park on Bainbridge was posted with warnings and trail closure due to a particularly aggressive Barred Owl. The Park District opted as their solution to post the trail as closed to remove their liability for anything that happened and allowed the owl to have its territory. I can also see the possibility of a particular bird being declared a “nuisance” bird, and having it removed (killed or relocated.)

Last month I was informed of a dead barred owl that was face down in a creek. When I examined the bird several days later, I found an intact corpse with a broken neck. It was a hatch year bird on a well-established pair of Barred Owls’ territory. If it had been killed for food by a Great Horned Owl, coyote, cat, or raccoon, there would have been feathers all over and no body to exam. I am led to believe that it was smacked in the back of the head by one of the resident barred owls.

So, how to deal with an aggressive barred owl? First, try to avoid dawn and dusk situations. Most encounters occur during these times. Wear a helmet. Most encounters also occur from the rear (which is a good thing), and many are followed up with repeated encounters or close calls. These are not cases of mistaken identity, but are deliberate encounters designed to drive you off their turf. For whatever reason, frequent targets are women joggers with ball caps and pony tails. Another easy to do is to either wear a headlamp or carry and use a flashlight. Individuals are much more likely to be targeted than a member of a group. I don’t think I have a record of someone in a group being targeted – seemingly always a lone individual.

Hope this is of some help.


J. Acker

<mailto:owler at sounddsl.com> owler at sounddsl.com

Bainbridge Island, WA

From: Tweeters <tweeters-bounces at mailman11.u.washington.edu> On Behalf Of Wren Hudgins
Sent: Monday, September 06, 2021 12:21 PM
To: Tweeters <tweeters at u.washington.edu>
Subject: [Tweeters] Dive Bombing barred owls

In the Tiger Mountain area south of Issaquah, there have been reports of barred owls dive bombing hikers on trails and in one case, a woman going to her mailbox in Mirrormont. There have been no reports of talon contact but most incidents describe the owl flying barely over the head of a hiker. There have been a few feather contact reports. These reports started appearing in June 2021, but the incidents have occurred also in every month since then in a several square mile area, and yesterday, to me. It was dark and I was wearing a headlamp. Following one incident I turned the headlamp on high and was able to spot the bird on a branch overhead. I put the headlamp in my hand and moved it back and forth, side to side. The owl’s head turned to track the light instead of staying fixed on me. However, many reports of similar incident involve no lights at all and some are in daytime. A birding friend suggested this was perhaps the behavior of young owls establishing and defending a new territory. I would appreciate any insights regarding this behavior.

Wren Hudgins

Tiger Mountain

Wren Hudgins
wren.hudgins at gmail.com <mailto:wren.hudgins at gmail.com>

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