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Originally published November 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 8, 2007 at 2:13 PM

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Backyard wildlife

When owls attack ... humans

In October 1997, I received the first of many reports about marauding owls invading our peaceful parks and yards. Owls attacking from behind...

Special to The Seattle Times

In October 1997, I received the first of many reports about marauding owls invading our peaceful parks and yards. Owls attacking from behind, from the front, sending people to hospitals for stitches.

Every fall from Vashon Island to Bridle Trails State Park they strike, which is strange, since fall is not the breeding season when defense of nests would be logical.

There are two species of perpetrators — the barred owl (Strix varia) and great horned owl (Bubo virginianus). Barred owls moved into the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s after a dramatic range expansion from the east. The great horned owl is a long-term native.

Each is large, but while the barred owl appears similar in size, it is not as powerful, weighing only 1 to 2 pounds with smaller talons. It is mostly feathers. Great horned owls weigh 3 to 4 pounds and are 20 to 25 inches tall. So, I suppose it's better to get whacked by a barred owl.

The reason for the fall aggression is unclear. They may be juveniles seeking to set up new territories, or these youngsters may respond to humans as "hyperstimuli," seeing us as a super-size meal before they have learned better.

Another interesting fact is that the strikes occur in daylight, one as late as 9:30 a.m. Many occur at "crepuscular" time — dawn and twilight — which is not unusual. Owls do not always hunt by night, as commonly thought, and they use both sight and extraordinary hearing. But you can't hear them; they fly silently because of specialized feathers.

Oddly, I have not had a report this year. Do they feel vindicated, or are you all just not telling me?

For more information on Washington's owls, see http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/living/owl.htm

Patricia Thompson is a wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

She can be reached at thomppat@dfw.wa.gov.

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