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From barred to bad: Owl with a grudge terrorized joggers, kids in Tacoma’s North End

By Craig Sailor, The News Tribune
Published: March 31, 2024, 6:00am

TACOMA — Kevin Larson was out for a jog in Tacoma’s North End in December when he felt something strike him.

“It feels like somebody hit me in the back of the head with a rake,” he said of the early morning attack.

Larson looked to his left. Nothing.

He looked to his right. Nothing.

“And then I look forward, and it’s a big bird,” he said.

The “big bird” was a barred owl, a raptor known for aggressively defending its territory, even against creatures many times its own size.

After its first silent attack, the owl made a 180-degree turn in the dark, foggy sky and lined up for another go at Larson.

“That’s the image that sticks,” he said. “This owl coming straight back for you, just like looking at you.”

Realizing that the bird had it out for him, Larson made haste for the nearest refuge — the porch of Richard and Angelica Sanchez at the corner of North 12th and North Cheyenne streets.

“I was screaming and cursing and totally disoriented,” Larson said. “I realized that it’s trying to kick my ass.”

Repeat Offender

It turns out Larson’s attack isn’t new or unique.

Ken Bevis is a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. He frequently conducts public-education efforts centered on wildlife. At a class on Vashon Island in early March, he asked the group how many had been swooped on by a barred owl. Five participants raised their hands, he said.

“One guy said it knocked his hat off and scratched his head,” Bevis said.

“These birds are doing their natural thing,” said Jim Watson, a raptor expert with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It so happens this species, on the aggressive scale for raptors, ranks pretty high.”

Watson speculates that the Terror of Tacoma is probably a male defending its nest in a nearby tree or some other structure. Bevis agrees.

“This is probably the male because right now, the female would be on the nest,” Bevis said. Until the owlets leave the nest in May, their parents will remain vigilant, Watson said.

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Porch of refuge

Angelica Sanchez, who was already up and beginning her day, heard Larson’s pleas for help at her front door. But when he started ranting about a vengeful owl, she immediately thought he was not right in the head. Or pulling a scam.

The couple have a Ring doorbell camera next to their front door.

“When we looked at the video, we see you come running up,” she later recounted to Larson when they met outside her home in March. “And then you stand here and you watch and then you run out and you barely get to the sidewalk and he attacks you. It was like he was going for his prey. It was crazy.”

At the time of the attack, all the Sanchezes knew was that a stranger on their porch was asking not to be shot.

“You kept looking at the door and you kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry,’” she said.

“I was suspect,” Angelica recalled. “I said, ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ Because I didn’t want to open up the door.”

Angelica cracked open a window to speak with Larson. She agreed to call his wife, Jordan.

“I’m driving and sure enough … I see the owl, perched right up on the phone pole,” Jordan Larson recalled. “And I see my husband on the person’s porch, and I’m, unfortunately, laughing really hard.”

Larson made a run for Jordan’s car. The ever-patient owl launched another attack.

“I just bolted right towards the car and basically entered upside down, head first, legs up,” he said. The owl got him again before he managed to close the door.

Watching the commotion, the Sanchezes realized Larson wasn’t a lunatic after all.

“We’re just like, ‘Oh, he’s so validated right now,’” Angelica said. The couple promptly sent an apology text to the Larsons.

When they got home, Kevin Larson found talon scratches on his head.

Native or Invasive?

Strix varia, aka the barred owl, is distinctive among Washington’s seven forest-dwelling owl species. Its white and brown striped plumage frames a round face with dark eyes.

The bird isn’t native to Washington state. The first reported sighting in the western part of the state was in 1973.

Although the owls moved across North America from the eastern United States, they are not considered invasive because they weren’t introduced by people, according Watson. Run-ins with humans aside, the birds are most aggressive toward their fellow raptors.

Barred owls, in addition to their attacks and hat stealing, are often squatters, according to Watson. They sometimes purloin the nests of other birds or move into tree hollows.

Wherever they nest, it’s their natural instinct to defend their territory.

“When they see any sort of movement, that probably triggers a response behavior, that in this case was a fellow jogging by early in the morning, and it said, ‘I better take care of that,’ “ he said. “It’s meant to be frightening.”

With a 4-foot-wide wing span, an owl can make a lasting impression on a coyote, raccoon or jogger.

Raptor with a record

When The News Tribune met with Larson at the scene of the crime, curious neighbors soon joined the conversation. It turns out Larson wasn’t the owl’s only victim.

Elliott Paige, 10, said the raptor attacked him and his friends during a backyard football game in November. Like Larson’s attack, the owl used a silent come-from-behind approach.

“We started running, and we went back inside, but it got Paxton,” Elliott said, referring to a friend. Paxton had only a minor scratch, according to Elliott.

Sometime later, the boy’s father saw a distressed runner standing in front of the family’s house while he was taking Elliott to soccer practice.

“I asked her if she’s doing OK, and she’s like, ‘No, that owl just took my hat,’” Tyler Paige recalled.

Paige looked up to see the owl sitting on a telephone line, the woman’s knit hat in its talons.

“It was perched up there, mean mugging us,” he said.

The woman declined help. Tyler shot a photo of the bird and drove away.

“She started running the other way, and I saw it go back at her,” he said.

Forest thug

While Larson’s run-in with the barred owl was unnerving, it’s unlikely owls are going chase him or anyone else out of their homes. But that’s not the case for the barred owl’s cousin, the endangered northern spotted owl. Barred owls can push spotted owls out of their habitat with repeated attacks.

If barred owls are the brutish thugs of the forest then spotted owls are the George McFlys of the boreal world. They are too nice for their own good.

“Spotted owls are really mellow,” Bevis said. “It’s one of the wonderful things about that species.”

For biologists, spotted owls aren’t difficult to catch. They are easily distracted by mice.

“They keep staring at the mouse and then you sneak up behind them while your partner’s keeping them looking (at the mouse) and you just slip (a net like device) over their head and climb out of the tree,” Bevis said.

It’s not surprising that barred owls are living within walking distance of a Starbucks in Tacoma’s North End. Unlike the spotted owl, barred owls are adaptable both in their habitat and diet, Watson said. Like a college student at an all-you-can-eat buffet, they’ll consume just about anything.

“That’s one of the reasons that they displaced the northern spotted owl,” he said. “That’s really the big story. This species has taken over the Northwest forests but at the same time, they’re also infiltrating more urbanized areas.”

Owl wars

The spotted owl’s need for old growth forest for nesting touched off the “Spotted Owl Wars” of the 1980s, which pitted logging interests against conservationists. Logging of mature forests slowed because the habitat was needed for the endangered species. That impacted timber-industry jobs.

In logging-dependent towns, signs and bumper stickers abounded with slogans like, “Save a logger, eat an owl.”

Now, the barred owl is accomplishing what the timber interests couldn’t.

“It’s kind of ironic. Of course, that’s not good for the spotted owl,” Watson said.

Bevis spent eight years studying spotted owls. Eight years of “putting radios on spotted owl butts” as he puts it.

When in timber-country bars, Bevis kept the details of his profession to himself.

“I didn’t lie, but I would kind of dodge it,” he said. “I didn’t want to go there.”

Who cooks for you?

Even with their gentrification of spotted owl territory and the attacks in Tacoma, barred owls are hard to dislike. Their flat faces and forward looking eyes are reminiscent of our own. Their calls, sometimes described as sounding like, “who cooks for you,” lend a mysterious air to any forest walk.

“Their hoots are kind of thrilling and chilling all at the same time,” Watson said. “Kind of haunting.”

The nerve to take on a creature much larger than itself demands respect — an avian David versus Goliath.

And owls are, after all, Harry Potter’s best feathered friend.

But all of that hasn’t stopped the federal Fish and Wildlife Service from proposing a culling of the barred in owl in areas where it conflicts with the spotted owl. Animal welfare groups generally oppose the action.

Here to stay

Other than keeping a wary eye to the sky, Watson and Bevis have little advice to prevent attacks. An owl is going to do what an owl wants to do.

“Unfortunately, there’s really nothing to offer,” Watson said. He’s never been attacked by a barred owl but has had plenty of run-ins with other raptors during his research.

Bevis is fascinated by and resigned to the increase of barred owls in Western Washington.

“My line for biologists is, mourn the spotted, embrace the barred. Because they’re here to stay,” he said.

Watson advises the public to admire the birds.

“When you see an aggressive bird that has moved into an environment where it formally did not exist, its ability to survive and adapt is pretty remarkable in itself,” he said. “So that’s something to behold and to really consider as being very interesting.”

And owls give off a sense of mystery that was a major aspect of Pacific Northwest native cultures, Watson said.

“It goes beyond some of our recent history,” he said. “So they they loom large, both in our culture and in our hats — when we’re joggers, I guess.”