No, Barred Owls Are Not Trying to Kill You

Some Oregon joggers have learned the hard way just how protective these raptors can be when nesting.

Sprained ankles and shin splits aren’t the only injuries runners in an Oregon park have risked this winter. Barred Owls have been dive-bombing joggers in the state capitol’s 90-acre Bush Pasture Park since January.

So far, there have been four reports of the stocky raptors, originally inhabitants of East Coast forests who spread to the Pacific Northwest during the 20th century, attacking joggers at this locale.

The most recent incident happened last week. Early Monday morning a jogger felt a scratch on the back of his head and upon turning around, noticed his favorite black Nike hat missing. The clip of an owl’s two- to three-centimeter talons felt “almost like you touched the tip of the knife but you pulled away before it does any real damage,” the runner, Brad Hilliard, told The Statesman Journal, the city’s local paper.

Other runners’ encounters were more traumatic, like that of 58-year-old surgeon Ron Jaecks, who was exercising at Bush Pasture in the wee hours of January 13. In an initial swoop, a Barred Owl, weighing a light one to two pounds, silently snagged Jaeck’s stocking cap and simultaneously pierced his head. Thinking he was being attacked and fearing for his life, Jaecks anxiously sped up, running in circles and screaming. He told The Statesman Journal that he thought he was having a stroke or maybe an aneurysm. Booking it for the Salem Hospital, a nearby target, he was struck once more by the overhead assailant. At this point, Jaecks saw the owl, an animal with a near five-foot wingspan. In the hazy morning light, he thought it was an enormous bat. Relieved nonetheless by a non-human aggressor, Jaecks bypassed the hospital and went home to wash his head.

Owls inflicting injury like this is rare, but not unheard of during this time of year, when the birds are preparing to raise their young. “When owls are nesting, they're really territorial,” David Craig, a biologist at Willamette University and friend of Jaecks, told the paper. “Great horned owls as well as barred owls often swoop down on people, but a very small percentage get clawed and attacked like that.” 

Bob Sallinger, the conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, also emphasized that the behavior isn’t anything to worry about. People love these “jaws and claws stories,” he says, “but an owl bopping a couple of people should not be national news.”

Oregon’s wildlife biologists expect the owl assaults to end as mating season concludes, lasting some 60 days in total. In the meantime, Oregonians, take caution, and perhaps, consider running a less precarious track until spring.