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Owl attacks woman in Pioneer Park

The barred owl is common to Northwest neighborhoods and parks.  - Contributed/Flickr
The barred owl is common to Northwest neighborhoods and parks.
— image credit: Contributed/Flickr

A frantic flutter of wings. Claws grab at the back of your head. You turn, terrified. Nothing is there.

It is dusk in the park. You look up into the dark trees. An owl sits, motionless, his eyes unblinking. And then he swoops down, claws outstretched, to attack again.

No, this is not the beginning of a macabre Halloween tale. It’s the story of an Island woman in Pioneer Park.

Last Tuesday evening around 7 p.m., Islander Lisa Lansford was walking her dog in the southwest quadrant of Pioneer Park when she was attacked from behind by an owl.

Although uninjured, Lansford suffered quite a scare as the owl swooped down to grab her pony tail not once, but twice.

“I felt this thing grab me on the back of my head. It kind of pushed me forward and so I turned around,” she said. “I saw this owl, 20 feet away, sitting in the tree. And then he immediately swooped down again and tried to grab my dog.”

Lansford’s small dog, a Border collie/Australian mix named Mia, dashed for it. After waving her white vest at the owl and screaming to scare it away — with little success — Lansford decided to follow Mia’s example and she, too, dashed out of the park toward S.E. 92nd Street.

Worried that other Pioneer Park visitors would become the owl’s next target, Lansford called the city to report the incident.

“I think it’s important to let people know. If he would have swooped me from the front, he could have taken an eye out,” she said.

City arborist Paul West returned Lansford’s call. According to West, such behavior is typical of owls during October. In fact, the city has a history of owl-attack reports during this time of the year. It has to do with the waning hours of the day.

Although theories vary, many biologists believe that aggressive owls are juveniles seeking to set up new territories. Another theory is hormones.

Woodland Park Zoo raptor keeper Jean Ragland said that owls secrete hormones based on the amount of light. This lets them know when to breed — typically, in spring. But because the amount of light in early October is similar to that of early spring, the birds are easily confused.

“It’s getting more common, I understand. In the last 10 years, there have been more attacks,” she said, adding that the Northwest’s barred owl seems to be the major culprit. “This is the most common owl in the area. They lack fear of people and live in many parks.”

The good news is, the barred owl’s aggressive behavior does not last much longer than a few weeks. By late October, the birds should be back to their regular, more docile temperaments.

Yet until this time, Islanders should be wary of the owls that live in Pioneer Park and other wooded areas.

“People should be aware if this is going on,” Ragland said. “It may help to wear a hat. And don’t look up. You don’t want them coming at your face.”

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife warns people to keep small dogs, cats and other pets in enclosed areas so as not to become prey for hungry or temperamental owls. If a complete or permanent enclosure is not practical, escape cover should be provided.

If people have a problematic owl near their home, a variety of devices can frighten the birds away. Increasing human activity in the area will keep most owls at a distance. Yelling and clapping hands or banging cans together are effective methods when an owl is seen nearby.

It may also be wise to avoid Pioneer Park at dusk and dawn until mid-October. And dogs should always be kept on a leash when in the park.

For more information on Northwest owls and their behavior, visit www.wdfw.wa.gov.

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