Owls are considered wise and are more frequently heard than seen. You may be familiar with their hooting at night as nocturnal animals, they rarely come out during the day. If you did see one, it may seem they have eyes in the back of their head with the ability to turn their heads quickly 270°. But should you be concerned if you see an owl? Do owls carry the bird flu? Are owls dangerous?
What are owls?
Owls are a group of birds from the order Strigiformes that are primarily nocturnal raptors. They are known for their large eyes, curved beaks, and nighttime hooting. There are 200 different owl species from the smallest elf owl which is only six inches tall to one of the largest, the Great horned owl which can be 2 feet tall with a wingspan of 6 ½ feet! Owls have large sharp talons on their feet which they use for hunting at night to swoop down and snag rodents. Smaller owls may eat mostly insects while larger owls can hunt for mice, birds, frogs, fish, snakes, small rabbits, and small foxes. One species, the Bay owl, waits outside of caves and eats bats!
Are owls dangerous?
Yes, owls can be dangerous, but attacks on humans are rare. The two most dangerous situations are if a human approach the nesting area of an owl or if a pet owl gets angered by its owner or visitors.
How are owls dangerous?
Owls have long sharp talons at the end of their feet. The great horned owl, the largest owl in the United States has the largest talons. Owls have four toes with three facing forward and the fourth one in the back, making the perfect claw. The span of the Great horned owl’s talon is around 8 inches so similar to the size of a human hand. Can you imagine looking up to see two clawed talons heading toward you? Luckily, that rarely happens. The force of the talons of the Great Horned Owl is 300-500 pounds per square inch, similar to the strong bite of a dog. That could be very dangerous.
Have owls attacked people?
Attacks on people are rare but there are a few documented cases of owl attacks on people.
- The most publicized attack is an alleged attack on a woman in North Carolina. On December 9, 2001 Michael Peterson called authorities when he found his second-wife at the bottom of a staircase, unconscious. Michael was later convicted of killing her due to the sharp wounds on her head that looked like they came from a fireplace poker. However, a few years later an attorney presented the “Owl Theory” suggesting that Kathleen had been attacked by a Barred Owl, causing the wounds on her head. The theory states that the owl swooped down, got stuck in her hair, she fought it off then went inside to get cleaned up, was disoriented and fell down the stairs. Netflix and Dateline both have a series on the mysterious murder of Kathleen Peterson, with no definitive answer yet.
- More commonly, people report an owl swoops down at them, making minimal contact or minor scratches. In November 2019, Anna Scrimenti reported that on one of her daily walks, an owl swooped down at her three separate times, scratching her head and neck. Wildlife experts from the area, Washington D.C., said it was a barred owl and that they do occasionally attack people. Owls are known to have keen eyesight but maybe not all do. This particular owl may have mistaken the woman as prey, misjudging her size.
- In 2015 an owl became famous for attacking people in Bush’s Pasture Park in Salem, Oregon. The owl was nicknamed “Owlcapone” for its aggressive nature towards joggers. Later in the same year, a man reported how he was attacked several times by a barred owl as he jogged to his car from his office. He suffered small scratches to his head.
Can owls be dangerous to pets?
Yes, owls can attack small pets but they do not routinely hunt in people’s backyards. They are also nocturnal hunters so they only hunt at night. There was a recent case in Luling, Colorado where a miniature schnauzer suffered gashes to her body. The vet suspected it was a bird of prey. Another neighbor in the same area said she witnessed an owl swoop down and try to snatch her 6 lb Yorkie, that would have been a scary sight! Pet owners can place a plastic owl statue in their backyard to ward off owls. Since owls are territorial, they may stay away if they see a bigger owl already occupying the area.
Can pet owls be dangerous?
If you watch some videos of wide-eyed owls being cared for by their owners, including one that almost looks like it is smiling as it gets dried off by a hair dryer, you would not think that owls are dangerous. But even pet owls can be dangerous, especially if a person provokes the bird or is unkind. Always take caution when handling pets especially if they are not your own.
Do owls carry rabies?
Owls do not carry rabies. The only animals that carry rabies are mammals, with bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Domestic animals like dogs and cats can also carry rabies. According to the CDC, 60-70 dogs are reported to be rabid each year, and another 250 cats. Vaccination programs have been very successful in limiting the spread of rabies among dogs and cats. If you get scratched or bit by an owl, rabies will not be a concern.
Do owls carry other diseases?
Owls can carry some diseases that are bacterial and could spread to humans, but it is very rare for a human to contract a disease from owls. One disease of concern is Psittacosis (Ornithosis, Chlamydiosis), which is a common bacteria in wild birds. Humans can contract it from contact with the feces of birds like owls. A person who is infected would have flu-like symptoms and/or respiratory issues. The second disease is Mycobacterium avium (or avian tuberculosis) which can be spread through the air by breathing in particles containing the bacteria. Again, this is very rarely contracted by humans.
Can Owls get the Bird Flu (Avian Influenza)?
Yes. Unfortunately, owls can contract the bird flu and it can be deadly. There is a bird flu affecting birds now in the spring of 2022, killing hundreds of domestic poultry birds. The current strain, H5N1 has been found in 300 wild birds as well, in more than 30 different states. As of April 20, 2022, there have been 12 reported bird flu cases in owls including 6 Great horned owls, and 6 Snowy owls. These have occurred in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Michigan, New Hampshire, Florida, and New York.
Can Owls spread the bird flu to humans?
No, the bird flu is not transmittable to humans from owls. There are no cases of humans in the United States having the avian flu virus.
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