Runners? Barred owls have you in their sights.
Illustration by Robert Meganck.
You’re out for an early morning run in your lovely, leafy neighborhood, where the venerable oaks tower over your head. You’re cruising along, lost in your thoughts. Then suddenly—a glancing blow to the head. A sharp, raking pain. You cry out and whirl, startled, to spy your assailant.
There’s no one there.
Then your attention is caught by a fleeting glimpse of movement, and you look up to see broad, gray-brown wings, outstretched talons, a wide-eyed glare.
Holy Hitchcock, Batman! The owls are attacking!
And Rob Bierregaard has a hypothesis.
Bierregaard, an ornithologist and research associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, has spent years studying birds of prey. One longtime focus of his research has been the barred owl, a large, gray-brown owl that is perhaps most familiar for its hooting call, “Who cooks for you?”
And every year, come late summer or early fall, says Bierregaard, there are stories of barred owls attacking joggers. A few years ago, it was happening in the D.C. area. There have been reports from Seattle, from Canada, from England. This past August, the stories surfaced right here in the Old Dominion, where a local blog reported multiple assaults in Richmond’s Westover Hills neighborhood and adjacent Forest Hill Park.
Are they hungry? Angry? Guarding territory? Celebrating this year’s 50th anniversary of that classic creep-out of avian revenge, The Birds?
Or are they—as Bierregaard believes—just messing with us?
“They’re not trying to eat us, obviously,” he says, “they’re smarter than that.” And in the fall, they’re not being territorial or protecting their young either says Bierregaard. Instead, he says, “The young birds are out of their nests and wandering around looking for new territories, and I figured these attacks are just young birds playing, just goofing around.
“I don’t think they’re making a mistake,” he adds. “I think they’re doing it because the joggers are out early in the mornings and in the evenings when the owls are, and the owls see a moving target, and it’s something to do, and they have time on their talons.”
Bierregaard has spent a lot of time thinking about the habits and interests of barred owls. When he moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, a number of years ago, he was surprised to find the city’s older suburbs veritably teeming with them.
Their presence, however, did not jibe with the textbooks, which said the owls were not supposed to be there. Instead, they were supposed to require large stands of old-growth forests for their habitat.
“So either the textbooks were wrong,” says Bierregaard drily, “or owls can’t read.”
Bierregaard’s research suggests, however, that older suburbs—like those you’ll find in Richmond, where the owl attacks took place this summer, or in neighborhoods around Washington, D.C.—make the ideal barred owl habitat. “What barred owls want is trees big enough to have holes to nest in and a pretty open understory.” The owls like to sit in the trees and watch and listen for their prey, he says, “and older suburbs are über old-growth, with their older trees and open understory.”
The open understory is key to the owl’s nighttime hunting strategy, as it glides silently on widespread wings to snatch its prey. They always nest near a stream, and they enjoy frogs, crayfish, fish (“they’ll clean out a goldfish pond”), bats and birds, and they really love cicadas which, in some neighborhoods, must have made this past spring, with its huge hatches of periodical cicadas, quite a feast.
Because barred owls hunt at night, they depend on very acute hearing to locate their prey, according to Amanda Nicholson, outreach director for the Wildlife Center of Virginia, which treats sick, injured and orphaned wildlife from all over the Commonwealth. “Their ears are assymetrical, which helps them triangulate in to any sound that is going on. They kind of hear in 3-D to really figure out where the noise is coming from so they can swoop down and grab their prey,” she says.
So that silent flight? It’s not just about surprising their next meal with a stealth attack. The owls need the silence in order to hear what they’re hunting. “If they have had any injury in the wings,” says Nicholson, “we have to make sure they are really silent so they can hunt again.” By comparison, other birds—bald eagles, for instance—make a relative racket in flight. As for the owls, says Nicholson, “It’s amazing just how incredibly quiet they are.” Unfortunately, owls gliding through the darkness too often come into serious or fatal contact with cars, which is why the Wildlife Center regularly receives them for treatment.
With luck, an owl might enjoy a lifespan into the teen years, but in reality, “They do get hit by cars pretty often,” says Bierregaard. Thus, while in theory barred owls mate for life, “they really mate to a territory,” he says. “If they lose a mate, there are lots of young floating around, waiting, and the owls are pretty quick to adapt. We found that when an adult would die, it was a matter of one to three weeks before a replacement would fill the place.”
In the fall, you can often hear the owls’ hooting call in the night. Bierregaard suspects that what you’re hearing is older owls warning off young wanderers that may be in search of their own territory.
That, or maybe they’re putting out the word: “Dibs on the next jogger!”