Aggressive owls seem to be terrorizing University of Richmond, bloodying students

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A pair of owls seem to be terrorising students and faculty at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

Chemistry professor Leo Leopold told The Collegian, the university’s student newspaper, that “it felt like a 10-pound pinecone hit me in the back of the head” when he was attacked by one of the animals.

The professor said he had no idea an owl was nearby; it was completely silent.

“I touched the back of my head and found blood,” he continued, describing an encounter that happened in August. “That was when I looked up and saw two owls.”

The university’s roughly 4,000 students were back on campus starting 22 August, and have reported a number of alarming encounters with owls, often late at night.

On 30 August, The Collegian reports, owls attacked two students, making off with a baseball cap. A student later found the hat marked with claw holes.

Another student was attacked and suffered cuts to the back of the head.

Richmond biology professor Peter Smallwood told the student paper he suspects the encounters are with a barred owl, a species common to the Southwestern US, and the second-largest owl found in Virginia.

Because the encounters are occurring outside the owl’s normal spring nesting season, he theorises that they may have been raised in captivity and escaped, explaining their erratic behaviour.

“I don’t think it’s trying to attack people,” he said. “I think it’s just used to people feeding it and it’s probably really hungry.”

Suburban environments, with their proliferation of trees and gardens, and the tasty vermin who live in them, often make suitable habitats for owls, and the occasional aggressive exchange with human neighbours isn’t unheard of.

In November 2021, CBS46 Atlanta reported at least 15 people in the metro area had been attacked by owls.

A homeowner named Stephanie described her “terrifying” encounter to the station.

“It sunk its talons into my shoulders and then my head,” she said. “It kind of came up to me and kinda of smashed into me.”

In 2012, a jogger told The Washington Post about his own set of barred owl attacks in Bethesda, Maryland. Rob Bierregaard of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte told the paper he suspected the culprits were teen owls having a laugh.

"Barred owls are so used to humans that they’ve pretty much lost all fear of them. But I can’t stretch that to explain why an owl would pop a jogger on the back of the head," he told The Post. "Using Sherlock’s strategy that after you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true, the only thing I can come up with is these are playful young."