Keep an eye out for owls

The back of the head is one of owls’ favorite targets. Silently gliding from behind and with one powerful thump from their talons can at a minimum startle a person, or worse, cause a bump or scratch the skin.

“I’ve heard of people having gouge marks in their head from talons,” Wolf Hollow’s Executive Director Chanda Stone said. Wolf Hollow is a local non-profit that rescues and rehabilitates sick or injured wild animals; research helps us learn how to improve rehabilitation care standards and increase post-release survival rates, and raises awareness through education. Owls are not usually trying to hurt the individual when they dive-bomb, Stone added, just trying to communicate they are there, to protect their nest and owlets. A year ago the National Historical Park issued warnings of owl attacks on one of the trails at English Camp due to a juvenile barred owl swooping down on hikers. On other occasions, the park has closed trails after great horned owls became territorial.

“Great horned owls can be a little more aggressive, but any type of owl is capable of attacking. Except maybe saw-whet because they are so small,” Stone said. Northern saw-whets stand at an average of seven inches and only weigh around four ounces.

According to author and naturalist Susan Vernon, resident owls include the great horned, barred, western screech, and barn owls. Islanders might spot short-eared owls during the winter, the northern saw-whet as it migrates through, or long-eared, burrowing, and snowy owls on one of their occasional visits.

Vernon encourages islanders to listen for owls this time of year. “It’s great fun especially if outside a bedroom window or sitting out on the deck at twilight.”

Vernon describes the barred owl as sounding like “Who Cooks for You.” Great horned owls are known for the classic hoo-h’ HOO – hoo, hoo.

During matings season a pair of great horned owls call back and forth to each other. The female calls first loudly, then the male answers softly in a lower pitch. “I have heard these ‘conversations’ while walking along Finlayson Ridge just after dark,” Vernon said.

Western screech owls can also be heard courting each other with calls that sound like a bouncing ball.

To protect oneself against an attack when walking in known owl territory, Stone suggests wearing a hat. For added protection, drawing eyes directly on the fabric of the back of the hat works wonders.

“It doesn’t have to be fancy, just take a sharpie,” Stone said, adding that she knew of women who embroidered eyes on hats. If one does not want to damage their hat, take a piece of paper, draw eyes on that, and tape it on the back. The only problem with this method is that it doesn’t hold up in the rain.

“I know it sounds silly, but it works,” Stone said. Hats, decorated or not, Vernon pointed out, also provide extra protection against talons, should an owl swoop down.

According to Vernon, Great Horned owls nest in the fall to take advantage of the long winter nights to hunt. Around January or February, Shona Aitken, Wolf Hollow’s Education Coordinator, said during a recorded talk at the San Juan Island Public Library, great horned owls will be incubating eggs. By April they can have fuzzy nestlings. In the fall these nestlings will have fledged and should be capable of hunting on their own.

Great horned owls are one of the largest owls, Aitken said. While their size can vary depending on location, here in the Northwest, they average about two feet tall, with a four-foot wingspan.

Their talons are incredibly powerful, and, Aitken joked, their attitude toward life seems to be if it moves, kill it and eat it.

Besides eating rodents, great horned owls have been known to kill other birds, including birds of prey, like peregrine falcons.

As nocturnal creatures, dawn and dusk are common time periods when owls may become defensive, as this is when they tend to hunt. If an owl does dive bomb, do not linger or become aggressive, keep moving, Vernon said, explaining “be mindful, especially If an owl snaps its beak. That is a sign of stress for them and means go away, so go.”

Stone added that this time of year, dawn can last into midmorning, and dusk occurs around 4:430 p.m. “For those trying to get in a quick walk after work, be alert if you are walking in a new area.”

Pet owners should also be cautious about letting their animals out during those times. Stone herself witnessed her cat being dive-bombed by an owl.

“It took a chunk out of its head,” she said. The cat was fine, and stitches were even necessary.

To protect pets from owls, and other aggressive animals, like raccoons, Stone recommends first, if feasible, to keep them indoors. If the cat, like her own, insists upon going outside, there are colorful colors available to scare owls and other birds of prey away. For owls, in particular, keeping cats in during the night is highly recommended.

Stone also encouraged property owners not to use poisons to kill rodents. Mice, rats, and voles are all primary food sources for owls. Often a poisoned rat or mouse will go outside to die, where it can be eaten by any number of animals, including owls. If one of these noble birds eats a poisoned rat, there is nothing Wolf Hollow or anyone can do to save it. Instead, try either a live trap and release the mouse back outside, or choose another non-toxic way to dispose of them.

Aitken told her audience that the dark winter months are also the season when Wolf Hollow receives an abundance of owls injured after being hit by cars. Keep a lookout for shining eyes along roadways, and be alert for owls that may swoop in front of the vehicle.

“Remember this is the owl’s island too. Understand that if it gets aggressive, it’s only because they are somehow feeling threatened, or their nest is being threatened. Respect their space, and watch from afar,” Vernon said.

To learn more about local owls, listen to Aitken’s talk at