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Swooping owls have a hoot with Vancouver runners

Barred owls live and hunt in the park on Vancouver’s west side

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson , in City , on November 22, 2017

A runner jogs along the Salish Trail in Pacific Spirit Park.
In the quiet of an early morning run, few runners anticipate feeling an owl’s talons sweep silently along their scalp. But for crepuscular runners in Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Park, the experience is relatively common.

Barred owls live and hunt in the park on Vancouver’s west side. They don’t hesitate to protect their prime real estate and squirrel supply from unsuspecting humans during the winter months. Runners at dawn and dusk are common targets, alongside dogs and owl prey.

“The owl grabbed my ear and sliced it open,” excitedly said Jenn Dowling-Medley of her most recent owl encounter. “I had to get it stitched back together at the UBC Hospital. The nurses there didn’t believe me when I told them it was an owl.”

Attacks that draw blood are rare but, according to Caitlin Folvik of the O.W.L. Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society, owls regularly swoop runners passing through their territory. It is very unusual for the owls to injure people, but they will regularly fly away with hats or pull on a runner’s hair.

Owls scare some, intrigue others

Some people are willing to take the chance anyway.

“People tell me that I shouldn’t go into the trails alone because there are people that could hurt me,” said Nazde Edeer, another regular runner in Pacific Spirit Park, with a laugh. “I tell them, ‘No. It’s the owls I worry about, I’m not concerned with the people.’”

Others are even enthusiastic about meeting an owl.

“Owl attack? I’m not sure,” said Jerry Ziak, a running coach who trained in the park for several years. “It’s more of an owl encounter. It’s a brush with nature that’s kinda cool.”

His five owl encounters left some scratches, but Ziak doesn’t mind.

“I really find it invigorating. They never come from the front, so I’m not worried about my eyes.”

Still, being swooped by an owl was unnerving for Dowling-Medley. She now avoids the park during dawn and dusk.

Attacks are common on the Salish Trail, but there are no warning signs.

“Yelling and screaming doesn’t do much to deter them,” she said. “I’m from rural Ontario, and was mostly worried of sketchy, off-leash dogs before coming here. The owls are worse. At least dogs, you know they want you to go away,” she said. “The owls … I don’t know what they want.”

The owls approach people following a predictable pattern. Six runners contacted by The Thunderbird reported that the owls swoop in from behind, run their talons against the unsuspecting runner’s head, and then disappear silently into the trees. After a few attacks, they usually perch on a branch and look down at the runner quizzically.

This year, the attacks seem to be concentrated along the Salish Trail between University Boulevard and 16th Avenue and in the trails near Southlands Elementary School. According to park officials, most attacks occur between October and March.

Fewer than 10 are reported annually. If several attacks are reported in one area of the 874-hectare park, rangers will put signage on nearby trailheads to warn users about the owls.

“Barred owls are really goofy”

Those who study owls say there is nothing unusual about this behaviour. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, barred owls are very territorial and will chase away human and non-human intruders. The intensity of their attacks usually increases during their winter nesting season, when females are known to be particularly aggressive.

An injured Barred owl peers out from its enclosure at the O.W.L Wildlife Rehabilitation Society.

Humans are not the only ones fearing barred owls, a species native to eastern North America. They pose a threat to native owl species. The barred owls spread across North America in the early 20th century, first appearing in B.C. in 1943 around the Liard River in the northern part of the province. They have since expanded their range, displacing and inter-breeding with the endangered and native northern spotted owl.

According to Folvik, owls respond to textures and rapid movements. They don’t perceive runners as one large animal, so they might attack a fluffy hat or a ponytail thinking that they are seeing a squirrel. But from her experience rehabilitating barred owls, she also has another theory.

“Barred owls are really goofy,” she said, hinting that they might just be playing with runners.

That is a game Dowling-Medley does not want to join. “The eagles are much nicer,” she said. “They don’t swoop people who run under their trees. J.R.R. Tolkien was right, J.K. Rowling was wrong: eagles are cool, owls are not.”