Ditch the ponytail and leash your dogs: How to stay safe from an owl attack

·8 min read

Owls have gotten particularly bad PR over the last several years for their potential to harm humans.

But experts say that most attacks — though they can be dramatic, swooping, flapping events — will leave you with only minor scratches, if any.

This summer and into the fall, several neighbors swapped stories on the social media site NextDoor, reporting being swooped on by owls while walking or running along the Raleigh Greenway.

“I felt two hits to the back of my head that felt like branches fell or someone was throwing rocks. At home, I found 6+ scratch marks,” a Raleigh resident posted earlier this month, adding a photo they snapped of an owl looking down at them from a tree.

Several people responded with similar stories of owl encounters, many in that same area of the Greenway — around the Stannard Trail / Lead Mine Trail area.

“This has happened to me twice now — definitely barred owls,” a neighbor responded. “I no long(er) run before it is light because I get so anxious about being attacked. It happened in 2 different places and the second time it would not stop until I ran into a bush — yanked out some of my hair.”

“Happened to me a few years ago while running early and was wearing a knit cap that the bird took with them!” another neighbor replied.

Should we be worried about owl attacks?

The N&O spoke with Greg Batts, a wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, to learn more about why we’re seeing so many owls this time of year, and how to stay safe around them.

What makes owls attack people?

“It’s a couple different things, depending on the time of the year,” Batts said.

Nesting season: March to May. “Owls are always territorial, but they’re more territorial certain times a year.”

“There are nesting seasons when they’re raising their young. March to May — you’ll typically see several attacks during that time frame. They’re sitting in nests, raising young.”

Growing pains: August to September. Batts said we might also encounter owls later in the year, around August and September, and these are young owls that have been kicked out by their parents.

“The majority won’t make it to their first birthday,” Batts said.

“They attack things they think are prey because they’re not good at hunting yet,” he said. “So if somebody comes running down a trail, and she’s got a ponytail bobbing in the air, to young owls, that looks like a mouse or a rat that they would eat. That’s when people get swooped down on.”

The owls going after humans now, late in October, are the young, starving owlets learning how to hunt, Batts said. While the older, experienced owls know they won’t eat a jogger for dinner, the baby owls are still learning the difference between a woodland rodent and a ponytail.

How serious can owl attack injuries be?

Most of the time owls are just swooping down on people and it’s mostly just scary, Batts said.

But if they dig their talons into you, you can get lacerations.

“Their talons can be sharp and long, and they can have pretty severe lacerations if they really dig in,” Batts said.

“In most cases, injuries are just going to be some lacerations you can deal with on your own. It won’t be hospitalization stuff. I imagine there have been cases in the past where people need stitches, but I don’t hear about that stuff.”

Has anyone ever been killed by an owl attack?

We hear about owls attacking people from time to time, but are they ever fatal?

Batts says no.

“As far as I know, nobody’s ever died of an owl attack,” he said.

“I’ve never heard of anything like that, and I think you can scour the internet and you’ll find that an owl has not caused anyone to die from an attack. That’s far-fetched.”

How can you avoid an owl attack?

Be alert in the spring: “One thing I’d say is you need to be cognizant in the spring,” Batts said. “If there are owls around — and (social media apps) like NextDoor are really great to get the word out — you can say there’s an owl nest on the Crabtree Creek Trail, and folks need to be watching out when they go through there. There’s not much you can do with getting rid of the owl, they’re just trying to protect their young.”

Hide your hair: “When it comes to joggers, the best thing to do is to hide your hair. Wear a hat, tuck the ponytail, just don’t have your hair flopping in the breeze” Batts said. “Don’t make it look like you’re a mouse or a rat. Ponytails can look like prey running through the leaves, and they hone in on it. You need to mute that look.

“Cover your head. They’re going to the head because they see the hair bobbing up and down. Cover up your hair, tuck it in a hat, that sort of stuff.”

Carry an umbrella. “If you have to go through somewhere all the time, just have an umbrella and walk with it. That can help from having problems, too,” Batts said.

Should you remove a problem owl from your neighborhood?

Never, Batts said. The only people licensed to that would be the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the federal government.

“You don’t want to be messing with any kind of wild animal in North Carolina,” Batts said. “Doesn’t matter the species, it’s against the law to try to relocate any animal in North Carolina without a permit from the N.C. Wildlife or in some cases the U.S. [Fish and] Wildlife Service.”

Batts said if there’s a problem, call NC Wildlife and they can try to help.

“The thing to do is to call us, and we can try to help people mitigate some of those issues,” Batts said. “That can mean going there to put up signage to let people know to stay clear of an area or close off an area for a period of time.”

Also, birds are “almost impossible to catch.”

“We have this issue all the time with geese,” Batts said. “People want us to relocate geese, but we can’t get close because it flies off. Anything that can fly is extremely hard to catch and relocate.”

What do owl nests look like?

Owls are cavity nesters, which means their nests will be in a hole in a tree.

“You can typically find a nest because it’ll be a pretty large tree to have a hollow hole in it,” Batts said.

When do owls nest?

Batts gave us a timeline of when owls nest and hatch.

March: Owls are going to lay their eggs in March. They lay their eggs, sit on them for about a month, then they hatch.

March, April and May: For another month after hatching, owls have the owlets in the nest with them. Throughout March, April and May, you may encounter the nesting problem.

“But once that’s over with, they will go back to doing what they were doing: Flying around different places and hunting, stuff like that. You can bet that in that time frame — March, April, and May — you’ll have your own owls in the same area all the time.”

Attacks can still happen in these months.

“You’ll typically have a male and a female, a mated pair, and one of them will be off doing the hunting while the other is with the eggs or with the owlets. It’s typically the female in the nest and she’s more protective, while the male is off looking for things to eat.”

Will owls go after dogs and cats?

Yes, Batts said owls have been known to kill cats and they will swoop down on small dogs.

“They see them as a prey item in some cases when they’re really small,” Batts said. “That’s typically what we see with these attacks — territorial around nesting season or young owls inexperienced and grasping at straws. In so many cases they’re literally starving to death and they’re trying to get prey.”

Owls going after dogs in particular depends on the size of the dog and the time of year, so those walking smaller dogs should be aware of the danger.

“If I know from NextDoor or Facebook that there’s a nest, if I have a three-pound dog and I know there’s an issue in the neighborhood with an owl, then I’ll take precaution,” Batts said.

“If I have a 25-pound dog, I’m not going to worry about that. It depends on the time of the year and the animal. You’re supposed to have your animal on a leash, so you should be able to grab it up if it becomes an issue.”

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