Thursday, January 11, 2018

Neighborhood Master Birder Provides Important Information On Recent Attempted Owl Attack In Park

Last month, the Laurelhurst Blog posted about an owl that tried to attack a neighbor and his dog during an evening walk in the Park.

The neighbor wrote:

On Friday, December 15, I was walking my dog at Laurelhurst Park around 8:30pm, when this big owl kept swooping down trying to attack us, mainly my dog.  
It would come inches away and I was swinging at it trying to make it go away while leading my dog back to my car.  It was a pretty scary experience. I'm just glad my dog is okay. I was able to get a picture of it in between attacks. 

Connie Sidles is a neighborhood birding expert and Master Birder, who maintains a blog documenting the many types of birds, including beautiful pictures, at the nearby Union Bay Natural Area, also known as the Montlake Fill.

She sent this information to the Laurelhurst Blog:

Dear Laurelhurst Blog,

I would very much like to reply to this post about owl attacks by supplying information.  I am the current Conservation Committee Chair for Seattle Audubon Society and speak for them on this issue.

Barred Owl Behavior

Something amazing is happening in our neighborhood. Barred Owls is small but increasing numbers are moving in, as the recent owl attack shows (Laurelhurst Blog, Jan. 5, 2018.)

As best as I can tell, the owls in Laurelhurst are probably the progeny of two Barred Owls who set up their territory in the Arboretum many years ago and have been successfully raising young every year since. Each season, after the babies fledge and the parents judge they are old enough to take care of themselves, the parents stonily drive out the kids to make their own way in the world. No returning to live in the basement for owlets!

As the young Barred Owls seek mates, they need to establish their own territory and defend it against other owls. Such territories are hard to come by in our neighborhood because we don't have many large swaths of forest or even woods. Barred Owls don't require a whole lot of privacy, but they do require some seclusion from people. So when a pair finds suitable habitat, they defend it aggressively.

These aggressive tendencies increase as egg-laying time draws near, as it is now. Barred Owls defending their nest, eggs, and young will sometimes swoop on people and/or pets. Sometimes they will even strike, though their intent is only to drive danger away. These attacks can be startling, to say the least.

Like all owls, Barred Owls' feathers end in fine fringes, which act to muffle all sound. Owls fly silently, so you can't hear them coming. The first inkling you might have that you have invaded an owl's territory is a thump on the head, or a wing brushing your shoulder.

There is no good way to deter Barred Owls from behaving this way. It is what they do.  So what can *we* do to prevent such encounters, short of killing the owls?

The best thing we can do is this: When we discover we have entered an owl's nesting territory, we should immediately leave and not return to that area until breeding season is effectively over and the owlets have fledged enough feathers to leave the nest. For Barred Owls in Seattle, the breeding season lasts from around the end of December to the end of February. During this time, if you come too close to a nest site, you're liable to trigger aggression from the owls.

The recent attack reported by a neighbor who was walking her dog in Laurelhurst Park indicates that an owl pair may have a nest nearby. It might be too much to ask of all of us to avoid the park altogether for the next several weeks! But if one of these owls does come out of hiding in the daytime and does start swooping, it would be best to leave immediately. This will calm down the owl, who will return to its roost and try to go to sleep. Eventually, these owls should become more accustomed to people and our pets and learn that we are not a threat. Birds can and do learn these things, and most eventually settle down and leave us alone, as long as we leave them alone. 

Luckily, most owl nests are located in the deepest woods the owls can find, as inaccessible to people as the owls can contrive. So owl encounters are rare. However, if a pair sets up a nest near our human byways, they may interpret the simple act of walking too near to be a threat. 

Now that we know where this particular Barred Owl attacked, people should give the area a wide berth for the next several weeks. Walk on the opposite side of the street for a block or two and let the owls have their undisturbed space. They won't take long to fledge their young and delight us once again with their eery presence. In the meantime, they'll kept busy catching rats to feed their babies and reduce the overpopulations of these urban pests.

The more we all understand the wild things that live with us, the better we will be able to get along with each other and appreciate the wonderful nature we have.

Barred Owl
(photo courtesy of Dennis Paulson)

Several other neighbors also weighed in on the attack here.

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