• Hunter Cresswell

Hooters turn looters

Gatineau Park owls snatch headgear

Maybe when telling someone to get down people should yell “Owl!” instead of “Duck!”

A Gatineau Park barred owl seems to be out for headwear and is swooping down to pluck headlamps and hats off of unsuspecting skiers and hikers in Kingsmere, sometimes scratching peoples’ heads as it grabs their toques and lamps with its sharp talons.

You can’t see it in this photo, but this barred owl is sitting on a toque, which it snatched from a skier’s head in Gatineau Park near Kingsmere on Feb. 27. Photo courtesy Jacki Coolican

Tenaga resident and frequent park user Jacki Coolican was finishing up a cross-country ski outing on Feb. 27 around 7 p.m. when she and her partner had a brush with the audacious owl. The couple were skiing Trail 30 toward parking lot P7 in Kingsmere, when they noticed a light off in the woods and a hatless man on the trail who said that an owl snatched up his headlamp and hat and dropped it in the woods.

“It had caught him by surprise and it scratched his head a little bit,” Coolican said.

As the man went to get his hat and lamp, the owl swooped down at his head again before flying away — but not too far away.

As Coolican and her boyfriend – who doesn’t wish to be named in this story – began skiing again, the owl swooped at his head knocking off his headlamp and then flew away with his grey toque clutched in its talons.

Coolican kept skiing, but held her poles above her head and tapped them together to ward off any other aerial attacks, while her partner recovered his headlamp from the snowy ground, but didn’t get his toque back. That day.

Coolican returned to the scene of the crime the following afternoon in search of her partner’s grey toque, which was pretty much brand new when it was nicked from his head. Luckily she found it in the snow and it wasn’t even damaged by the bird’s talons.

“I couldn’t believe I found it,” Coolican said.

Tenaga resident Jacki Coolican takes a victory selfie with the toque she recovered after an owl stole it off her boyfriend’s head during a recent cross-country ski through Gatineau Park. Photo courtesy Jacki Coolican

She posted about the owl and finding the hat on the Chelsea Folks Facebook page. The post quickly picked up steam with multiple people chiming in with comments about how they too had experience with owls swooping at their heads in the park. Coolican was even warned by her neighbour about an owl near P7 that steals hats, and another neighbour said he also got his headlamp and hat taken by an owl, which were never recovered.

Wakefield resident and life-long Gatineau Park user, Carsten Podehl, said that he’s avoided getting his headgear stolen by owls, but has heard multiple stories about owls taking people’s hats in Gatineau Park. However, he said that he’s heard this has occurred more to the north in the park near the Healey or Herridge cabins near the Meech Creek Valley.

“It’s usually associated with a headlamp at night, so I’m not sure if they’re after the hat or the light,” Podehl said.

To try to answer the “why” question about the owl swooping, The Low Down exchanged emails with Kirk’s Ferry resident and professional birder, Geof Burbidge, who has led bird hikes in Pelee Park for years and done avian environmental assessments for wind power companies in eastern Ontario.

“I have no personal experience with owl attacks, but I do know the owls in the area and I do know that the two species of owls with the worst reputations for territorial defence attacks against humans – barred owls and the much larger great horned owls – both nest in the park,” he wrote in an email to The Low Down.

Burbidge added that these owls will typically try to ward off intruders with warning sounds that are made by clacking their bills or hissing. The owls might be fooled by hats, thinking they are prey, but the great horned owls hunt mainly by sound at night; barred owls are daytime hunters, but will attack intruders at night if they feel threatened.

“Owls are most aggressive during their nesting periods, and both species – barred and great horned – would be well into the nesting now, with eggs laid in February,” he said.

It’s important to keep in mind that Gatineau Park is the owls’ home, where humans are visitors at best and intruders at worst. Some people still believe that it’s rude to wear a hat inside someone’s home — maybe these owls are just old fashioned?

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