To all my runner friends who are reading this, stop what you’re doing right now and get yourself some AfterShokz headphones. And if you need even more reason (or aren’t convinced you’ll ever encounter an owl, read this).
And while you’re at it (based on the great advice I received from the Portland Audobon Society this morning), get yourself a good hat if you don’t already have one.
I was running solo through Forest Park early this morning (as I do almost every single week), enjoying an episode of Armchair Expert (on my AfterShokz, of course) – it’s the Beanie Feldstein interview in case you’re wondering – and she is just too cute. Anyway, about mid-way through my run, at approximately 6:30 am, I suddenly heard what sounded like a dinosaur (a sound I imagine a pterodactyl makes) and then felt something grab my ponytail. I immediately ducked down, releasing my ponytail from it’s grasp, and looked up to see huge wings over me. I realized it was a big owl as it flapped up into a tree less than 10 feet away from me. It just sat there, staring back down at me, while I stood there in total shock by what had just happened.
My first thought was that it must be protecting a nest so I started to walk away slowly, but before I knew it, I heard the now familiar sound of an owl approaching and started to duck. It grazed the top of my head, swooped up away from me, and perched itself in another tree close by (in the opposite direction). I thought, OK, you don’t want me to go that way either. I froze for a second, recollected myself, and then started to walk slowly the other way (again), only to hear the approaching bird and quickly take cover.
After the third swoop, I was starting to feel a little trapped. I texted my husband and a couple of friends and said, WHAT DO I DO? They offered me some suggestions like carry a big branch, play loud music, walk slowly while making noise and flailing your arms. There were no big branches near enough so I tried the other ideas. The owl was not deterred. I started to walk slowly and was telling the bird to BACK OFF very loudly as I flailed my arms overhead and again, I heard the swooping sound and took cover. I played music. No dice. This owl didn’t give a hoot about my noise making abilities or big movements.
So I stood frozen for awhile – just staring at the owl, the owl staring back at me – wondering if it would eventually just let me pass without swooping, or bopping me on the head. Eventually another runner started to approach and I yelled out to him to slow down, only he couldn’t hear me (because, ahem, he was wearing regular headphones) so I waved my arms and began pointing until he noticed me. He stopped and slowly walked towards me and I pointed to the owl (who I named Rosemary – don’t ask me why), and we noticed his / her watchful eyes were upon us.
He asked me which direction I was headed and I said any direction that will get me out of here, so we walked slowly together the way he was heading (opposite of the way I had intended to travel), and once again, I heard the swooping sound, grabbed his arm and pulled him down low. He didn’t have any hair or a hat so I figured get low, cover our heads is the best option. After the swoop, we got up and just kept moving forward.
Once we were in the clear, we laughed about the encounter (he admitted he thought I was a little off my rocker until he actually got swooped), said farewell and continued our respective runs. I ended up doing a much different route than I had intended, but got in a good 10 miles with just over 1,000 feet of gain and alerted other runners and hikers along the way to be careful if traveling northwest on Wildwood towards 53rd (and to be on the lookout for an angry owl just before the Morak intersection).
Once I got back to my car and alerted friends and husband that I was owl free, I called the Portland Parks office to let them know where the aggressive owl was. And it was pretty anti-climatic. The woman on the line (probably just an office admin?) didn’t seem to take my call very seriously. She was basically like, yeahhhh, ok, and maybe you should call to Audubon Society.
I called the Audubon Society and quickly discovered why the Portland Parks lady had reacted that way.
To my surprise, owl swoopings (especially in the PNW and especially by Barred Owls) are fairly common. She (Kathy, I think….) explained that at this time of year, the swoopings have nothing to do with nests (the baby birds would already be too big this late in the season to be in the nest), but more to do with territory. She said they aren’t sure why the Barred Owl have become so territorial and aggressive, but for whatever reason, they are. And there isn’t much they / you can do about them. She suggested wearing a hat and perhaps “protective clothing,” especially for your neck.
And then I read a couple of articles about Barred Owl’s swooping runners which confirmed that there isn’t much to do – other than wear a hat, or maybe try to run during the day (avoiding dusk and dawn), and as this Willamette Week article suggests – perhaps even rethink your ponytail?
Apparently owls are offended by ponytails….
“Sometimes it’s a buzz, sometimes they do hit people,” says Sallinger. “Most often it’s dusk and dawn, and oftentimes it’s people with ponytails. Somehow they’re triggered by that—that’s a question mark.” According to Petersen-Morgan, at least one jogger has also had a had a headlamp knocked off by an owl.
Though the phenomenon hasn’t been studied extensively, Sallinger also thinks it’s possible ponytails may simply be read as prey.
“Ponytails, we’ve had people get bopped in a variety of cases,” Sallinger says. “The youngsters maybe are confused. They see something that looks like food. A human being is not the size of prey.”
Anyway, happy #trailtuesday y’all! Tell me about your WILDLIFE encounters – and any tips you have for future owl attacks!
Stay sweaty (and wear hats!)
PS – are you living that adventure life? If so, join me on Stoke Life!