The owls are not what they seem.
A September 24 "swooping" by an owl in Forest Park marked the sixth time since June that a Portland park visitor has reported being buzzed or attacked by an owl, says Portland Parks and Recreation ecologist Kendra Petersen-Morgan.
Petersen-Morgan says these were the only significant incidents involving aggressive animals that have been reported in Portland parks this year.
On September 24, the owl merely buzzed the jogger—but among the 12 recorded cases in Portland over the past three years, there have also been scratches to the back of the head and neck. None have resulted in serious injury.
"It's pretty scary to have an owl swoop your head," says Petersen-Morgan. "The injuries are minor, but people have gotten talon scratches."
While the numbers aren't high, all of these swoopings, "boppings" and attacks are believed to have been perpetrated by a single species of owl—a highly territorial and aggressive species of owl called the barred owl, which is originally native to the east coast.
The barred owl's aggressiveness in expanding its territory is well known, especially in connection with the endangered, more timid spotted owl in old-growth forests elsewhere in the state.
The reporting of barred-owl incidents has increased significantly in Portland in recent months.
Petersen-Morgan says that this increase probably doesn't stem from a greater number of owl dive-bombings, but rather increased reporting by locals. Portland Parks and Recreation put up signs this June warning visitors to Forest Park and the Hart Arboretum that you may be "Entering Barred Owl Territory."
The signs also ask visitors to report any incidents to Parks officals, so that officials are able to track individual nesting or fledgling owls who may be aggressive.
Portland has also put up a web page with instructions for people who encounter a barred owl.
(Note: In case of aggression, cover your head with a jacket and walk away. In case of nonaggression, stare at the owl It's an owl. It's cool. (Edit: Parks officials do say not to stare too long, or too close, lest the owls indeed become aggressive.)
Barred owl aggressiveness in Oregon made national news in late 2015 after a well-publicized series of jogger dive-bombings in Salem. In Portland, one of the early reported victims of barred owls may be none other than mayor-elect Ted Wheeler, as WW reported last May:
"Wheeler tells WW he was on a half-marathon training run near his West Hills home recently when a large bird 'whacked me in the head.' Ever cautious, Wheeler declined to speculate on the species. 'It was dark,' he says. "'No harm, no foul.'"
Rachel Maddow picked up on the owl swoopings—making an owl-swooping sign sign for Salem to install in particularly bopping-prone areas.
Bob Sallinger, conservation director at the Audobon Society of Portland, says that while the behavior is specific to barred owls—other owls in the area include great horned owls, screech owls, pygmy owls and barn owls—it's still pretty rare for a barred owl to swoop.
It's likely to be more common, he says, in the spring during nesting periods, and in the fall when young owls are dispersing.
"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."
Nonetheless, Sallinger says these incidents should be thought of as a rare occurrence—especially given how widespread barred owls have become, extending even to urban areas: "In the vast majority of cases we don't have conflicts. When you consider how common they are, conflicts are actually relatively rare."
He also stresses that while barred owls did travel cross-country to get here, they're native to the United States and are a protected species.
"People call and they say, 'I saw a barred owl, what should I do?'" Sallinger says. "My answer is, 'Enjoy it.' They're not going anywhere. At the refuge we have a pair that nests every year. They nest on one side and take their young down to the pond. You see them hanging out with their youngsters. People love seeing them."