Lifestyle

Wear a hat when owls are nearby

The other day, I received this alarming e-mail from my neighbor Marti Anamosa:

“I have to tell you about the amazing and unsettling experience I had about 7 this morning on my usual quarter-mile trek through the woods to get the newspaper from the box at the end of our driveway.

As I passed a bend in the driveway, I noticed a large owl perched about 60 or 70 feet off to the right on a low branch. I quieted down my pace so as to not disturb it, and carried on. Within seconds, I felt a few strands of my hair get pulled as a second owl flew over my head, then perched on another branch about 30 feet in front of me — right over the driveway I planned to walk down.

Startled but stupid, I continued toward the end of the driveway and my newspaper (I hadn't had any caffeine yet ). The second owl dropped down and buzzed me again, then landed just above me! This time, I was p.o.'ed. I stood under him/her glaring up into his eyes, and for the first time realized it was a barred owl, and not our usual great horned owl. After five seconds of staring, I looked away first and pulled my jacket up over my head for protection, then decided to go back to the house and get an armed vehicle — or at least a hat — before I proceeded.

The third time was almost expected. I glanced over my shoulder only to see him about 10 feet behind me, flying right at my head. I screamed and hit the gravel!

As I got up, that first owl buzzed the barred owl - twice - and chased him down into the ravine. The first owl then perched on a tree about 40 feet away - thankfully not over the driveway. It was a great horned owl — larger than the barred, and with ear tufts.

I did go back and get a hat before retrieving my newspaper and I didn't see any more owls this morning.”

Marti went on to ask me to explain this barred owl behavior. So I gave her a call. I told her that this isn’t the first story I’ve heard of barred owls dive-bombing humans. For example, several years ago joggers complained of getting buzzed by a barred owl in Mercer Island’s Pioneer Park.

I can’t climb into the mind of Marti’s barred owl, but I can suggest that this owl is trying to establish or to defend a breeding territory with food supply and a good nesting spot. Most owls are territorial throughout the year. Perhaps the barred owl perceived Marti as a threat and tried to drive her away in the only way it knew how.

Marti observed the barred owl’s round head—lacking ear tufts—but may not have noticed the horizontal barring on the throat and the bird’s dark eyes, unlike the bright, lemon-colored eyes of the great horned owl. She says she hasn’t heard the barred’s distinctive nine-note hooting, often depicted as “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you, all?”

Traditionally barred owls inhabited mature forests in the eastern United States. Over the last century, the species, well known for its aggressive nature, has slowly expanded its range north and west across Canada’s boreal forest and south into the Pacific Northwest. The first record of barred owls nesting in Washington was in 1974. Now they breed as far south as California.

Great horned owls, which stretch only an inch taller than the barred, but weigh twice as much, have lived in our forests for untold centuries. Since Marti has been hearing great horned owls for the six years she’s lived here, it seems plausible the barred owl was trying to usurp some or all of its territory. In a manner of speaking, the great horned owl has come to Marti’s rescue and sent the barred owl packing.

The spotted owl, a smaller cousin to the barred owl, has suffered from the barred’s aggressive behavior. As we know, spotted owls prefer thick stands of old-growth conifer trees. Their chief prey are flying squirrels, a common mammal in that habitat. Barred owls thrive in a wide variety of habitats including more open, mixed forests. Opportunistic feeders, they consume a wide variety of small birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates.

As we humans have drastically reduced the amount of old-growth forests, spotted owl populations have plummeted. And segmenting the remained old growth has opened the way for barred owls to move into traditional spotted owl habitat. The mild-mannered spotted owls are no match for their larger, more assertive cousins, which, in some cases, have displaced them.

When I last checked with Marti, she hadn’t seen the barred owl in over a week and the great horned was still hooting at night. At least for the moment, life has settled back to normal for Marti. Still, she doesn’t venture out at dawn to get her newspaper without a sturdy hat protecting her head.

Frances Wood’s book: Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West explains more about owls and their behavior. She can be reached at wood@whidbey.com.

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