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Attack of the great horned owl

Nicole Veerman
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, June 29, 2011

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - Hours after discussing owl attacks at the dinner table, I watched one happen at the now-defunct Ptarmigan gold mine located on the Ingraham Trail. Coincidence or karma? You tell me.

NNSL photo/graphic

A great horned owl sits atop a tree at the now-defunct Ptarmigan gold mine. On Sunday, the same bird attack Ian Vaydik, the paper's photo coordinator. - Nicole Veerman/NNSL photo

I was at the mine along with Ian Vaydik, the Yellowknifer's photo co-ordinator, on Sunday evening in hopes of taking pictures of old rusting mining equipment strewn about the site.

It was on the way to the old machinery shop that we first saw a great horned owl - the territory's most common owl - sitting atop a tree.

Having never seen one before, I quickly pulled out my camera to snap a few shots of the majestic predatory bird. It was clearly agitated, hooting and swooping from tree to tree, but I didn't think much of it and continued taking photos before entering the dilapidated skeleton of a building that was once part of the mine's infrastructure.

Looking up, we noticed dozens of birds flying around the rafters and figured there must be a number of nests hiding out of sight.

While discussing what to check out first, Ian stepped out onto a platform free from the cover of walls.

It was there, not even a minute later, that he was struck on the right side of his head by the talons of the silently swooping yellow-eyed beast. Dazed by the impact, Ian grabbed his head as I stood in disbelief with a gaping mouth, watching and listening to him say over and over again, "We just talked about this."

As the situation sank in, I looked at the side of his head and found blood seeping out of three small wounds, one on his jaw, one in his ear and another behind his ear. To show him the damage, I took a photo and placed the digital screen in front of his face. He said he felt like he had been struck with a powerful punch.

After waiting a moment to get our wits about us, we quickly walked back to the car with our eyes on the sky. In the car, Ian and I talked about how odd it was that only hours before his dad had told a story about a man being severely injured by an owl's talon and shook our head in disbelief at the evening's events.

When we arrived at Ian's parents' house, he called the hospital to find out if he needed a tetanus shot.

"I know this sounds weird, but I was just attacked by an owl," I heard him say over the phone to a nurse. The nurse couldn't advise him one way or the other and told him he had to see a doctor.

Although the cuts were minor, for safety's sake we decided to make our next stop the hospital. While there, we were told by numerous nurses that Ian was the second person to show up in the emergency room in the last two weeks because of an owl attack.

Vicky Johnston, a biologist for Environment Canada, said at this time of year, when there are young owls in the nest, it's not uncommon for owls to attack humans.

"During the breeding season, they'll do all sorts of things to protect their young," she said, noting that many birds will "dive bomb" predators if they feel their nest is threatened.

"I've been hit in the head by gulls, by terns - those are the most common ones - and owls will do it. Even small birds sometimes will go after you."

Johnston said birds go for your head because it's the highest point on your body. The best way to protect yourself from a similar attack, she said, is to take cover in the trees if there is a clearly agitated bird in the area.

Bob Bromley, a bird enthusiast and Weledeh MLA, suggests holding a stick high above your head to make yourself look taller than you are.

"It doesn't take much to ward them off, but you've got to expect them," he said. "Fortunately I have never been attacked, but I'm always very much on the lookout. They (owls) are strong. They're a big bird and those talons are so sharp. They're meant to be lethal."

Lethal or not, the photo opportunities are too good to pass up, so we're planning our return trip - complete with protective gear, like snowmobile helmets.