When Birds Attack.
There. With a captivating title like that and about 400 more pages, I have the makings of a best-selling novel. I can even take pages ripped from the headlines, since some birds do indeed attack. There can even be an element of whodunit mystery. Consider the unsettling incident that happened at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester last week.
Surely you read in the BDN that “an aggressive dive-bombing owl” struck a cross-country skier in the head last week, causing minor injury. Skiers were warned to avoid owl-nesting territory, as if it were possible to know exactly where that is. The article was supplemented with a photo of a barred owl.
I was going to let that pass, but then I saw the story in a Portland newspaper, and it was also accompanied by a photo of a barred owl. There were no photos of the actual assailant. The owl only struck once and hasn’t been seen since. Pineland groundskeepers were not sure of the culprit’s identity, but they suspected a barred owl. They offered a small chance it could have been a great horned owl.
Then a day later, I ran into Judy Camuso, Wildlife Division Director at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “Did you hear about our attack owl,” she asked? “Yes,” I said, “but, really, a barred owl?” We both snickered. There are historical records of barred owls defending a territory from accidental human intruders, but it’s rare, and neither of us had ever heard of such a thing in Maine. But there are plenty of instances of great horned owl attacks. One such owl terrorized skiers in Bangor City Forest a few years ago.
I will concede it could have been either owl, but I’ll make a case for great horned. Great horned owls are absolutely fearless. They are so fierce that they will kill other owls, even big ones like snowy owls. Bald eagles are larger still, but even eagles know better than to mess with great horned owls.
Great horned owls nest in the open, often in extremely exposed places. Most of the nests I have seen have been on naked treetops in large wetlands, often in abandoned great blue heron nests. I would expect an easily visible nest to require a more vigilant defense than a hidden one. Barred owls nest in tree cavities. On the rare occasion when I have found their nests, it was only because I saw an owl carry food into it, or there were owl pellets at the base of the tree.
Barred owls are fairly comfortable around people. For the last few years, a pair of owls has been nesting along a popular trail in Acadia near Sieur de Monts. When the babies fledge, it’s not uncommon for the whole family to sit within sight of pedestrians. There was a barred owl nest near my house last summer. I didn’t even know it was there until I saw the adults in midmorning, carrying food across the road and into the woods. Many barred owls have watched me pass by, even during nesting season, and they’ve never seemed bothered by my presence.
All owls nest early, but great horned owls nest earliest. They begin in January. Barred owls are likely courting now but won’t lay eggs for another month or two. I suspect it’s too early for barred owls to be defending territories. Nonetheless, it’s possible. Three Januarys ago, barred owl attacks in Salem, Oregon, stirred up local joggers and made big headlines.
It could be worse. Owls typically attack silently from behind. But northern goshawks let you know they’re coming. These large woodland hawks defend their nests with unmatched fury. They will dive at your face, screaming the whole way. If you ever get near a goshawk nest, you will remember it for the rest of your life.
In fact, I’ve been attacked by lots of birds, sometimes even tiny ones. I remember each episode, and in each case I had it coming. I recall an ovenbird attacking me on a trail in Acadia, a pine warbler trying to knock me off a rock along the Narraguagus River, a blue-headed vireo buzzing me in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and a white-breasted nuthatch flying at my eyes along the shores of Sebec Lake. I was unknowingly near their nests, and they all let me know.
There was only one thing for me to do: Flee.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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