Owls have a reputation as fearsome hunters and deadly predators. The great horned owl and the barred owl are commonly included in the worlds most dangerous birds. But owls are alternatively depicted as wise, knowledgeable birds or cute, cuddly picture book companions. Which is closest to the truth?
Are owls really dangerous? Join us as we investigate whether owls are indeed capable of terrorizing humans and inflicting serious injury on large animals and even people.
As well as being known as fearsome predators of the natural world, research shows that owls are also largely fearless. Owls are highly protective over their mates, young and hunting territories. If they feel any of these is under threat, they will attack without hesitation.
Owls have exceedingly sharp talons that they sink into prey, causing deep lacerations and puncture wounds. Lacking an instinctive sense of fear means that a threatened owl is likely to aggressively attack anything it sees as an intruder, regardless of size or stature, and without any advance warning.
As with all birds, owls are wild animals and their behavior is unpredictable, so extreme care should always be taken when you are in close proximity to where they may be nesting or hunting.
If you’re interested in learning how to protect yourself if you ever find yourself under attack from an agitated owl, please read on.
Great Horned Owls tend to be classified as dangerous birds
Owls use their sharp beaks and blade-like curved talons to protect themselves against predators and defend themselves against perceived threats. Their talons can grip, pierce, scratch and rip through flesh in seconds.
When they feel under threat, owls swoop suddenly and silently, taking the potential intruder by surprise before using their talons to follow through with their attack.
Owls are highly protective of their mates, their young, and their territories. If they feel that any of these is under threat, they will attack without hesitation, regardless of the size of the intruder. Breeding or broody owls are particularly aggressive and can attack without warning.
Recently matured male owls have high levels of testosterone and may be rather feisty as they attempt to establish their place in the natural pecking order of their woodland habitats.
Owls are particularly territorial during the breeding season - Long-eared owl with chick
Accounts exist documenting the relationship between owls and humans, and they are certainly not all friendly. Numerous cases of barred owls attacking hikers have been reported across the eastern and southeastern United States.
In 2015, residents in the Dutch town of Purmerend were advised to carry umbrellas to defend themselves in case they found themselves under attack by an extremely aggressive eagle owl, that was claimed to have attacked dozens of people during a three-week reign of terror.
European Eagle Owl in flight
In what may be considered a reversal of roles, owls resting on a perch during daylight hours may frequently be seen being mobbed or dive-bombed by groups smaller birds – but do not react or respond to the harassment in any way, and may eventually fly off to escape the unwanted attention.
As owls are largely nocturnal, they tend not to cross paths with many other birds during their waking hours.
Owls do occasionally hunt, catch and prey on other birds, but this is largely opportunistic rather than as a major component of their diet.
Owl attacks on humans are rare, but do happen from time to time. So it’s useful to know what to do if you find yourself on the receiving end of some intense owl aggression.
Owls tend to target the head and scalp, so the first thing you should do if you find yourself in this terrifying situation is to cover your head. Even if it’s just with your hands and arms, it will offer some protection from the knife-like talons.
As owl attacks can happen with no warning, and an angry owl may silently ‘dive bomb’ anything it sees as a threat to its nest or mate, you may not have time to prepare.
In such cases that the attack is underway, one piece of valuable advice is to flail your arms and legs, while making as much noise as possible to attempt to disrupt the attack and cause the owl to retreat.
Barred Owl perched on a branch
Owls are highly protective of their territory and if their nest site is under attack they will furiously lash out with all it takes to ensure their own safety and that of their mate, eggs and chicks.
Territory disputes with other birds of prey such as hawks, ravens, or even other owls can result in injury or death, with the owl frequently – but not always – triumphant.
Research suggests that owls lack a true sense of fear. Intense bursts of human noise, such as clapping and shouting will unsettle an owl and they are also likely to be spooked by sudden flashes of bright light.
Snowy Owl on the attack, flying directly at the camera
Owls are not instinctively friendly to humans and are generally intolerant of human company, especially any attempts at being touched, petted and handled in any way.
Even captive birds show signs of being uneasy with human company, and hand-raised owlets may also shy away from too much contact with people.
Keeping wild owls is illegal in the US, apart from in exceptional circumstances, for example in a licenced rehabilitation center. In the UK, it is legal for people to keep wild owls as pets, although owl ownership is frequently short-lived.
Wannabe owl owners may be unable to keep up with the demands of looking after a captive owl and may be disappointed when their expectations of bonding with a fluffy, cuddly owl fail to materialize.
Perched Great Horned Owl during the autumn
There is one widely reported case of an owl being embroiled in a homicide case. Although no conclusive evidence was ever proven, it remains highly debated that a barred owl may have been to blame for the suspicious death of Kathleen Peterson in 2001.
Peterson’s body was found with horrific head and scalp injuries that some believe were inflicted during a frenzied attack by a barred owl, and feathers found at the scene may support this theory. Barred owls have been involved in a series of attacks on joggers and hikers across the southern United States, and many serious head injuries and scalp lacerations have been reported.
Although owls generally target smaller, slower-moving mammals such as young mice or rats. It’s not unheard of for an owl to attack a cat, and a pet feline would not be beyond an eagle owl’s hunting capabilities, although smaller owl species may not attempt to opportunistically attack a cat unless it was actively intruding on its territory or straying near its nest site.
Anecdotal accounts exist of cats being killed by owls, although there is no extensive documented data for the circumstances of such reports.
Although unusual, it is not unheard of for a dog to be attacked by an owl. Owls tend not to be fazed by the size of an animal if they consider it a threat to their territory, nest or mate, so if a dog is running loose in woodland claimed as an owl’s hunting grounds, then it may well find itself under attack from a highly protective owl.
The imposing size of some of the larger owl species, including eagle owls and great horned owls, means that larger mammals, such as foxes and small deer are sometimes successfully hunted and caught.
Owls that have received the most reports of attacks on humans include eagle owls, great horned owls, barred owls and snowy owls.
Perched Barred Owl looking directly at the camera
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.