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Bird of the week: The killer Owls of Durham County

Barred Owl with mouse. Photo by A. J. Hand

Barred Owl with mouse. Photo by A. J. Hand

A few weeks ago I came across a piece, published back in August in the News & Observer from Durham County in North Carolina.

The header “Three affidavits support Peterson’s murderous owl theory” grabbed my attention. I read on:

A lawyer for Michael Peterson filed three affidavits this week that further support the theory that an owl killed the novelist’s wife.

The story centred on moves to overturn Peterson’s conviction for the murder of his wife Kathleen in 2001.

T. Lawrence Pollard, one of Peterson’s attorneys, believes the written statements from three experts are enough to convince Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson to order the state Medical Examiner’s Office to turn over all documentation related to Kathleen Peterson’s autopsy, including photos, videos, notes and audio recordings. If granted, the information would be used to prove that Kathleen Peterson was killed by a owl, not from blunt force trauma.

“It does give us new hope,” he said about the affidavits. “We know that we got the feather. We know that it happened late at night. We know that there was a small wooden sliver recovered that was determined to be a tree limb. The SBI crime lab did not examine the feathers. They assumed these feathers didn’t have anything to do with the crime.”

While the News & Observer story didn’t identify the species of owl that may have left the feather – and the lacerations in Kathleen Peterson’s head – the theory that she was attacked by a bird appears more convincing – from this very distant remove – rather than blunt force trauma from a weapon.

The Raleigh Metro Magazine expanded at some length here on what has become known as “The Owl Theory.”

The theory speculates that Kathleen Peterson had been drinking wine with Michael at the outdoor pool area of the house during the unseasonably mild evening.

Kathleen walked outside near two white artificial Christmas reindeer lit by floodlights. Here an owl (or owls) was lurking, hunting for prey at night. Suddenly, the owl, perhaps attracted by the reflection of her glasses or something she was wearing, swooped down on Kathleen, crashing into her head at great velocity and digging its talons into the back of her head.

Unsure what had happened, she struggled to fend off the owl, lifting her arms to her head. The bird swept in again, its talons extending into her skin, digging deeper and stopping only at the skull. The impact of the boney toes on the feet of the owl caused lacerations by splitting her scalp. At the tips of the lacerations on the back of her head and elbows, her wounds reveal where talons would have dug in and hit the skull bone, but not crack the skull.

The force of the impact probably knocked her to the ground where she received marks on her nose and face. As she got up from the ground and started running, the owl assaulted her again, raking her head – either to force her away, or to grab the glasses on her face or head, which were reflecting the light from the floodlights.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

And it seems that – from the US and Canada at least, Owl attacks are, while not perhaps frequent, are not unknown. Earlier this year Alan Van Norman posted this article at The Bismark Tribune from North Dakota, in which he relates his knowledge of the severity of owl attacks:

An owl attack will hurt — a lot. It can cause serious and permanent injury. More than one person has lost sight in an eye to an irate owl. When an owl is killing something, it does so by grabbing it with both feet and hanging on until its prey suffocates or bleeds to death. It will often peck at it with its sharp beak, but most of the killing is done with the feet, which are extremely powerful, while the talons are very sharp.

A 3-pound great horned owl can carry a 10-pound jack rabbit just by grabbing it with its talons and hanging on. To defend themselves from a large adversary such as a bear or a human, owls instinctively go for the head or face.

And this 2006 report in the Vancouver Sun discusses confusion between pigtails and squirrels – if you are an owl:

Barred owls are attacking people as they jog through the region’s wooded trails. Bird attacks in Coquitlam’s Mundy Park are serious enough that the city has posted signs telling people to wear a hat while in the park to avoid being mistaken for squirrels by hungry birds. The recent spate of owl attacks came as no surprise to Bev Day, founding director of the Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society (OWL). “That’s usual every year,” she said. The attacks come in September when the juveniles are learning to hunt and should tail off by the end of the month, she explained. Joggers are in particular peril because the owls will mistake bouncing hair or pony tails for a squirrel, one of their favourite food sources, she said. Anything dangly could draw an attack if the owl mistakes it for a smaller bird or a rodent.

In Australia we are used to being swooped by less dangerous birds like Australian Magpies and other vigorous defenders of nest and territory, particularly during the breeding season.

In the recent past I had the fortune to live close handy to a family group of Powerful Owls Ninox strenua, the largest owl in Australasia but as wonderful as it was to hear their calls and see them at close quarters from time to time I wouldn’t want to be the subject of an attack from one.

Powerful Owls are typical hawk-owls with prominent staring yellow eyes. Adult Powerful Owls can reach 60 cm in length, with a wingspan of up to 140 cm and can weigh up to 1.45 kilograms. Male owls are larger than the females.

Powerful Owl with Ringtail Possum. Photo by Duncan Fraser.

Powerful Owl with Brushtail Possum. Photo by Duncan Fraser.

As illustrated in this great picture by Duncan Fraser (you can see more here) not only are Powerful Owls massive creatures but they are well able to carry adult Brushtail Possums – which can weigh between 3.5 and 4.5 kilograms. Not bad for a bird less than half their weight.

I’ve only come across a couple of reports of attacks upon humans by large owls in this country – and none of them fatal. Here are some excerpts from a post on the Birding-Aus weblog from July 2009:

I was asked for information by a couple who had each been attacked on separate occasions by a large nocturnal bird on the nearby Ivanhoe Golf Course.

The first attack had occurred in the winter 3 years ago and the second attack was 4 days ago (22/07/2009). The first attack was on the wife who was walking with her husband and 2 dogs (one large and one small) at about 7.30 pm across the golf coarse fairways near Horseshoe Billabong in moonlit darkness. The bird had circled overhead before swooping three times and then stalked the ‘intruders’ for several hundred metres almost up to the golf course clubhouse where it perched in a tree giving the victim a good view of her attacker.

When shown a photo of a Powerful Owl the victim was convinced that her attacker had been a Powerful Owl.

In the first two swoops the bird made hard physical contact but on the third swoop the victim, very scared by this stage, managed to take evasive action. “It was not an isolated attack or a case of mistaken prey – it was a very calculated and repeated attack”.

The husband was attacked last Wednesday night (22/7/2009) and sustained scratches to the back and shoulders. He was walking in the same area with the same dogs and on this occasion was accompanied by his 12-year-old son. The child and the dogs were not attacked. “The force of the blow when struck by the bird was surprisingly hard and was not just a glancing blow…it was like being hit square in the back by a soccer ball that had been kicked fairly hard”. In both attacks the bird struck the main victim in the top of the back with a heavy blow and its wings also made contact with the companion walker.

Male Powerful Owls are known to be aggressive during the breeding season even at a considerable distance from the nest. Eye damage from their talons is a potential hazard.

Got any stories about people being attacks/killed etc by birds in Australia and beyond – log in (only takes a minute – and share your news and thoughts.


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  • 1
    Posted December 14, 2010 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Hello Bob,
    I was happy reading your blog. You have done a throrough research.
    I was the film editor of “Staircase”, the French documentary about Michael Peterson’s case and trial. I always believed he is innocent and I always thought his trial was unfair and the prosecution case bogus.
    I heard about the owl theory a long time ago but I didn’t take it seriously until 2 men were stricken repetedly by an owl within 10 miles of Peterson’s residence and the attack was captured by a security camera. Then, I did my own research and I found out how credible and even likely the theory is. Especially as 2 feathers were found in the victim’s hand 5 years after Larry Pollard theorized an owl attack (followed by a black out and a fall).
    You can read and see more documents about owl attacks on my blog:
    owltheory.blog.lemonde.fr (browse “categories”: “owl attacks”)
    Thank you for your interest in this case. An innocent man has been sitting in prison for 7 years.
    Sophie Brunet

  • 2
    Posted December 14, 2010 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Michael Peterson is linked to the deaths of TWO women, both of whom died of seven or more lacerations on their skulls and were found at the bottom of a flight of stairs. He got away with the first murder for years because it was not investigated at all, until her body was exhumed as part of the investigation into his wife’s death and her skull injuries confirmed. Both murders were for financial gain. It is illogical to assume some random owl attacked a women inside the home and WASN’T there when the cops got there. Also, why did Peterson call his son before the cops? Why was his wife cold and dead for at least an hour before the cops were called? Why was the blood splatter up his shorts in that weird manner? It is obvious from your report that you haven’t followed this case very closely. I used to work for a court, and read up on major cases all the time. I’ve seen people like him before; psychopaths who can’t believe they have been caught and will say ANYTHING to get out of jail. Peterson stinks like a serial killer. Maybe those aren’t the only two he killed, but only the two he got caught killing. The only thing about Michael Peterson’s conviction that seems unconvincing to me is that he didn’t get the death penalty. I sincerely hope this horrible person dies in prison.

  • 3
    Kathy M.
    Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Owls are scary creatures. I hear there’s no sound when they’re coming at you. All you hear is total silence cause their wings don’t make any noise. That’s why I’m extra careful never to walk my pet ferret outside when its getting dark out.

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    …] Bird of the week: The killer Owls of Durham County | The Northern …Dec 13, 2010 … The first attack had occurred in the winter 3 years ago and the second attack was 4 days ago (22/07/2009). The first attack was on the wife who … […

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