She spun around, searching for the source. An owl sat on a road sign, its head swiveling this way and that.
She took a photograph with her phone, then turned to leave, but the owl wasn’t finished. It dove at her from above, razor-sharp talons clawing at her scalp.
Scrimenti is one of several Washingtonians who have had run-ins with owls in recent weeks — a phenomenon that has rattled residents but elicited little alarm from wildlife experts, who said occasional run-ins with owls come with the territory.
Residents may not see owls marauding the streets of Washington, but, biologist Dan Rauch said, they’re always there.
“Barred owls are everywhere — in parking lots, by the zoo, outside Eastern Market, all over Rock Creek Park, the National Arboretum, everywhere,” said Rauch, a wildlife and fisheries biologist who works for the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment. “They’re just so cryptic and secretive that you don’t really see or hear from them unless they come out and do something like this.”
Barred owls, eastern screech owls, great horned owls and even snowy owls have been known to take up residence in the nation’s capital.
Although the birds typically try to avoid humans, Rauch said, they can sometimes mistake fuzzy hats or runners’ bobbing ponytails for prey. Juvenile owls, unpracticed at securing and maintaining the territory necessary to attract a mate, can be overzealous and protective of their turf.
In October, when owl attacks in the Woodley Park area were reported, some species were beginning to mark their territory — some juvenile birds for the first time, Rauch said.
“To successfully find a mate during breeding season, you need a certain amount of space and resources, and when you find it, you defend it,” he said. “A younger owl who doesn’t recognize people as people and thinks it might be a threat entering their territory will attack to try to give it a good scare and scare it off.”
Scrimenti, a health policy analyst for the California Rural Indian Health Board, sent a note to her neighbors, warning them about the rogue raptor. Another woman, who declined to be interviewed for this story, quickly wrote back.
Twice, she wrote, owls had divebombed her as she was running past the National Cathedral School in Northwest Washington.
Now, the woman told Scrimenti, she runs past the area with an open umbrella — just in case.
“It’s kind of shocking that this is happening,” Scrimenti said. “It’s kind of frightening. It’s definitely one of the more bizarre things to happen in my life.”
In both cases, Rauch said, the owl attacks could have been much worse. Had the owls gone for the women’s eyes or a more vulnerable body part, he said, it could have inflicted permanent damage.
The fact that they didn’t, he said, indicates the attacks may have been scare tactics.
Based on Scrimenti’s photo of her attacker, Rauch identified the bird as a barred owl — a large brown-and-white bird with streaks that look like bars on its chest. Barred owls, one of the most common in the Washington area, feast primarily on small mammals, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates.
They’re not considered aggressive, Rauch said, although all wild animals will attack when threatened.
“I would just stay out of that territory moving forward,” Rauch said, adding that owls are most active just after dusk and before dawn.
It’s not the first time owl attacks have nabbed headlines in the Washington area.
In 2012, residents reported incidents in Rock Creek Park and Bethesda. In 2015, an aggressive owl attacked half a dozen people on the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda. It dive-bombed joggers and stole people’s hats. Eventually, officials put signs up to warn visitors about the bird. Someone even made a Twitter account: MoCo_Owl.
It’s not known how many owls live in the District. The Department of Energy and Environment does not maintain bird census data, Rauch said, noting most owl attacks go unreported.
Scrimenti, who was attacked at the intersection of 32nd and Fulton streets and Normanstone Drive NW, got away with scratches to her head and neck. She went to the hospital to get checked out, she said, but the bird’s talons didn’t fully penetrate her skin.
She struggled for days to look up or down without pain. Her neck, she said, had frozen up because of the impact of the bird’s attack. It took about two weeks to regain her normal range of motion, she said.
She contacted a wildlife rescue organization to inquire about having the bird relocated, but, Scrimenti said, was told owls are federally protected. Unless the animal had caused a major injury, it was unlikely to be moved.
“We are in an urban area, and wildlife is trying to use the same space and resources as us, so sometimes there are negative interactions,” Rauch said. “These guys are learning how to adapt to live with us, and we have to learn how to live with them.”