Give a hoot about owl attacks

Did you hear about the owl attacks in early February? No? Neither did I, that is until last week.

A neighbour down the road called me to tell me that he’d been in hospital and had heard that two independent people, in the same evening, had been admitted in the emergency department after being attacked by owls while skiing at Hiawatha. As we both live up that way,  my neighbour thought I might be interested in the story.

“It struck again?” I asked.

“Again?” he replied sounding shocked.

I told him what I’d heard about an owl attacking skiers who had pompoms or tassels on their hats back in early January 2013. As a regular newspaper reader, he was surprised that he hadn’t heard about the hat-hawking bird and commented: “People should know about this.” 

A few Internet searches later returned nothing about owl attacks in the Sault media, though I did find the following on the Soo Finish Nordic Ski Club webpage:

“Beware of Owl on Mockingbird Extension

On Tuesday, February 10, there were two separate incidents involving skiers being attacked by an owl. The owl attacked the skiers with their talons and both people went to Emergency at the Hospital for assessment. One of the skiers was wearing a headlamp and a hat and was attacked within the first 50m of the Mockingbird extension of the Pinder trail.

We would like to remind everyone to refrain from wearing hats with tassels or pompoms and please tuck in your ponytails. Hiawatha Highlands is monitoring the situation and is asking for people to report any sightings or incidents to the office.”

I contacted the hospital to ask for details of the events and injuries, and also queried if  the hospital had reported these attacks, as I saw this a matter of public safety. They suggested that I contact the MNR. When I pressed, they said it would be a lot of work to find out any information without knowing the patient names. (I had given them the date of the attacks. I guess they get a lot of owl attacks and this wouldn’t stand out at all with staff?)

Even if it was a bit of an effort, isn’t it worth a bit of work to protect even one person from a future attack? Whose responsibility is it to report things like this? If there were a fox or dog on the loose prone to attacking people surely the community would be alerted?

Back to my Internet search results, it seems that there have been several barred owl attacks across North America.

People in the woods, at dusk, dawn, or night, appear to be targeted. In almost all of the attacks the person was wearing a hat often with a tassel or pompom and/or was using headphones and/or had a ponytail. In some attacks the hats were taken by the owl, like in Victoria, B.C.,  in other cases their headgear was knocked off. In almost every case the person’s head or face was bloodied by the owl’s talons.

The attack descriptions are quite alarming. Most of the victims heard nothing at all, and suddenly were struck forcefully in the head. Some described the stealth attack like being thumped by an invisible two-by-four, while others thought they’d been hit by lightning,  Andrew Matson’s blog, provided perhaps the most clear attack description; “I Got Punched in the Back of the Head with Flying Scissors.”

As owls hunt at night, it lends support to animal behavior specialists saying that a ponytail or certain headgear might be mistaken for prey (especially as exercisers are bounding about, creating a bouncy little pompom or ponytail to confuse with a squirrel’s tail).

Taking a further look at the reports shows a link in the time of year. In January 2015, a barred owl attacked a number of joggers in Salem, Oregon. January 2014, owls “winged” a number of people in Springfield Missouri. Feb 2014, in Digby, Nova Scotia a rabbit hunter was bloodied in an attack while checking his traps.

The time of year is important as it may link the aggressive avian behaviour to mating and nesting times. The officials at Bush’s Pasture Park decided after their third attack to put up signs for the duration of mating season warning people still choosing to use the area to wear hard hats. Another park closed one area of their park until eggs hatched.

Regardless, since we’re intruding on the owl’s area, I don’t think it is reasonable to relocate birds, which is what Jacksonville Beach, Florida was recommending after a handful of owl attacks on residents.

I think the best bet is to let the community know this is happening, and to put up seasonal signage or close down certain trails for the one month window.

I’m feeling bad for this owl “whooooo” is probably simply defending its eggs, and yet skiers aren’t getting the message and keep coming back.

Why don’t more people in positions of power to be of service give “a hoot” and alert the community?

I spoke with Tina at Hiawatha Highlands, who was truly very helpful. She told me that all trail pass holders were informed of the barred owl attacks via email, and that a message was posted on their website, and Facebook page.

That’s a great start, but, I would have thought that the board would have wanted to go further in order to prevent others from a “punch in the head with scissors.” Perhaps some temporary signage should be contemplated for next January and February?

I’m not trying to be alarmist, nor am I looking for a “feather in my cap,” but I think there would be some people feeling very “unwise” for not getting the word out sooner if a child playing near Hiawatha Highlands were to be the next victim of an owl attack.

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