Watch your pets, owls are on the prowl

A barred owl sits on the fence of Dawna Conley’s garden shortly after Christmas. After spending 20 minutes looming, the owl swooped down and carried off her dog’s stuffed squirrel chew toy. (Photo courtesy of Dawna Conley)

WALDPORT — Brook Day and her son recently had two close encounters with some of Oregon’s largest flying predators, but not ones you’d expect to see shaking animal coops or flying into structures during broad daylight.

Day keeps a variety of small animals at her home just south of Waldport, from guinea pigs and rabbits to chickens and quail. Until recently, she felt they were secure outside in their pens, so long as she was nearby to ward off hawks and other predators. But after two recent encounters with owls, she’s not so sure.

Day said it started when she spotted a barred owl hanging around in a tree and thought it was eyeing her chickens. But much to her surprise, what it was really after were her quail, which she thought were secure in their cage. Before she knew it, the owl had somehow managed to snatch three of the small birds from the cage and fly off.

After going online, Day said she discovered it’s a fairly common occurrence for owls to attack animal cages, first herding the occupants to one side so that they can then reach in and grab them through the bars.

Day was surprised a wild animal would be so bold, but little did she know she was about to encounter one even bolder.

“My son came running, saying a huge owl had come into our enclosed porch, which has a normal-sized doorway, but is otherwise closed in by glass,” Day said. “It was trying to get to his rabbit he had in there, and he had to run in and chase it off. Then it just hung out in the trees until later that night when it flew off, and we saw just how big it was.”

Day said she was able to identify the second bird as a great horned owl, one of the largest in Oregon and usually a nocturnal hunter.

“I’ve had hawks circling and trying to get to chickens if they were out free ranging, and I knew about owls,” Day said. “I’ve always had concerns about them, but this is the first time we’ve had anything happen. It was so bold.”

Day has lived in Lincoln County for the last eight years, and though she’s always been vigilant of common predators like hawks and other raptors, this has been her first close encounter with owls, which was a different experience. While she always enjoyed seeing owls in the past, such a close encounter left her son feeling a little rattled, and now she’s rethinking how to keep her animals secure.

Another Waldport woman, Dawna Conley, also had a close encounter with an owl around Christmas. A barred owl landed on her fence and spent about 20 minutes in her garden before swooping down and stealing her German Shepard’s stuffed squirrel chew toy.

According to Roy Lowe, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife service member and Waldport resident, this isn’t uncommon behavior for barred owls, which are technically an invasive species.

“The barred owl originally did not occur here. Its an eastern species that got here on its own because of changes in habitat across the United States,” Lowe said. “It arrived here in the 1970s and since then their numbers have only increased, so they’re now pretty common.”

Lowe was surprised to hear about the great horned owl, however, stating it’s much rarer to see those out during the day. He did note that winter is their breeding season, and many would be looking to bulk up to prepare for nesting.

“It is unusual though because usually owls will get attacked by other birds,” Lowe said. “A great horned owl sitting out in the open, it will often get attacked by smaller birds, like crows, trying to drive it away.”

As for targeting pets, Lowe said it’s definitely something to watch out for. Small animals routinely in the same area make appealing targets for owls, with larger species, like great horned owls, known to hunt cats and often go for animals as large as skunks.

“People need to realize that if you have an animal outside, you need to consider it part of the food chain,” Lowe said. “My brother lives out in Seal Rock and recently was walking his puppy. He noticed a barred owl watching them and asked if he needed to be worried. I told him not to let the puppy out in the back by itself.”

Lowe added that owls are actually coveted in many farming communities for their ability to keep the vermin population down, and it’s common to see nesting boxes on farms, especially down in California vineyards.

Dawn Harris, visitor services manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, said she personally keeps chickens and has lost many to barred owls, which hunt in the early morning and dusk.

“I consider it my fault,” Harris said. “I just didn’t have my birds secured right, but I also understand it’s part of the risks if you want to keep them free range.”

Harris also stressed that most owl species, particularly barred and great horned owls, are protected by law and shouldn’t be harmed.

“They’re part of our environment and protected by federal law and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” Harris said. “But the more important thing is now might be a good time to check your enclosures. If a bird of prey can get in there and harm them, so can other animals that really want to eat small critters like quail or bunnies.”

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