The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark
September 18, 2012
When barred owls attack
In the black hour before dawn on Sept. 4, Peter J. Grace, 41, stepped out of his house in Bethesda to begin his daily four-mile run. His first quarter-mile included Glen Cove Parkway, a seemingly peaceful street following a heavily wooded tributary of Little Falls Creek. But the tree-lined lane that early morning was merely a sylvan facade. Hiding in the folds of darkness was an assailant.
It was a stealth attack; no sound, no warning, just a sudden thump to Grace's head.
"I've been quite literally attacked from above by a large owl," Grace wrote to his e-mail group of fellow runners, "I had on a reflective armband and thought the owl might have mistaken it for an animal's reflective eyes."
But surely an owl can tell the difference. Grace is about 60 times heavier than the average rabbit nibbling on the grass at Westbrook Elementary, where Glen Cove takes a hard left to become Allan Terrace — the site of the next day's assault.
Morning of Sept. 5: Grace ditched the armband and chose instead to wear a white runner's cap. His mistake, however, was to run the same route.
"This time it swooped down on my head with its talons," wrote Grace, "three separate times!"
Did the owl mistake Grace's hat for a monstrous cottontail?
Peter J. Grace, left, and suspect, right.
Scene of attack: 5:30 a.m., Glen Cove Parkway at Allan Terrace, Bethesda.
No blood was drawn, but the mugger landed in a large pin oak illuminated by the sick amber glow of a sodium vapor lamp. Grace got a good look and later fingered his attacker in a Google lineup: a barred owl, 20 inches tall, two pounds; commonly heard and seen in the Washington area.
"Attacks like these are not uncommon," says Rob Bierregaard of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he studies suburban barred owls. If people bother an owl nest or come upon a young owl that was bumped out of its nest prematurely, it would make sense that a parent owl would attack. (When he studies owl nestlings, Bierregaard wears safety glasses and a lacrosse helmet.)
But "strangely enough, these explicable attacks are less frequent than what to me are really inexplicable strikes in the fall," confesses Bierregaard. Young owls have dispersed by now and are wandering into adult territories, "which may explain the spike in
territorial calling by adults often reported at this time of year," he says.
"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 says. "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." (Ever see the YouTube video of the young barn owl playing with a cat?)
The Bierregaard Hypothesis: September owl attacks are perpetrated by rambunctious teenage owls.
Small comfort to Grace, who isn't keen on being the target of juvenile raptor horseplay. He has since rerouted his predawn run.