Candlelight Estates resident Kelly Hansen, who lives on the 1800 block of Bethlehem Street, first became aware of some puzzling activity about a week ago, when her brother and his family, who live across the street, came over for a night swim.
“My nephew thought that maybe a pigeon hit him in the head,” Hansen said. “It happened again on his way home. He got scratched.”
A day or so later, neighbor Wayne Gabrysch asked Hansen what would have been an odd question any other time: “Has anything hit you in the head lately?”
It turns out that both Gabrysch and his wife had been hit in the head after dark by something.
“It felt like somebody slapped the back of my head and kept walking,” Gabrysch said.
Determined to discover the culprit, he and his daughter went outside with a spotlight after an incident and saw an owl, maybe about 8 or 9 inches tall, he estimates, sitting in a tree.
It was all innocuous until Patrick Hansen, Kelly’s brother, got hit when he took out his recycling on the night of Memorial Day. He said he thought he was being vigilant.
“I was scanning left to right and (one time) when I scanned right, I got a blind side to the left,” he said. “I reached up to grab my eye and felt blood.”
A talon had scratched the corner of his eye.
“I didn’t see him coming or going,” Patrick said. “It was dead silent.”
Heights High school student AC David, while visiting a friend on the street the next week, also got swiped. As she was looking down at her cell phone, an owl just nicked the top of her head.
“It felt like a soccer ball,” she said.
While Patrick Hansen expects to make a full recovery, the cumulative incidents have led neighbors to try and learn more about what’s happening – and when it will stop. Some wonder if there is more than one active owl with the number of recent reports from neighbors.
“In all the years of living here we’ve never seen this happen,” Kelly Hansen said.
It was local owl enthusiast Mark Lear who identified the owl on a birding social media page as an Eastern Screech Owl. In recent years, Lear has delighted residents with Facebook posts about his own backyard owls, for whom he put in an owl house.
“The original poster said it was small and silent and the encounter happened at (night),” Lear said. “That said screech owl to me. Barred owls and great horned owls are much bigger.”
Wildlife Biologist Diana Foss, with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, concurred based on the description.
“It’s most likely an Eastern Screech Owl,” Foss said. “They can be very protective of young owlets, especially when the youngster is just learning to fly, fresh out of the nest and starting to venture around. After that, the adults calm down a bit.”
Brooke Yahney of the Wildlife Center of Texas said the phenomenon is fairly common.
“We get calls about many types of birds protecting their nests in this way throughout the nesting season,” Yahney said. “Hawks and owls are always the main concern because they can cause more injury than a Blue Jay, for example.”
The protective mechanism kicks in when the chicks in the nest have reached “fledgling” stage where they are ready to begin venturing out on branches and on the ground.
“They are new to flying and can land in some unexpected spots,” Foss said. “The parent birds are keeping an eye out for predators that could injure the fledgling, so they are hyper-vigilant.”
Common owl species in Houston are the Eastern Screech Owl as well as the Barred Owl, the Barn Owl and the Great Horned Owl. Barred Owls and Screech Owls usually breed between February and June.
Yahney said the time until the babies leave the nest depends on the species.
“The smaller the bird, the shorter the time,” she said. “Screech Owls may take 6-8 weeks, whereas Great Horned Owls may take 12 or more weeks.”
Foss said it sounds like the nest and eggs on Bethlehem were hatched earlier, and the young are fledgling – or developing the feathers necessary for flight – right now.
“So once the fledglings can fly and control flight, the whole family will start moving around and not be so dependent on the original nest site,” she said.
In other words, the dive bombings should stop soon.
“In my experience, this behavior only lasts for about a week after the babies fledge,” Lear said.
In the meantime, residents are wearing helmets and putting tennis rackets in front of their face when they have to be outside at night.
“I always recommend an umbrella when walking in an area known for fly-bys until the babies have left the nest,” Yahney said.
Added Foss: “It’s usually near a specific tree (nest location) and won’t be for very long.”
Screech Owls can nest in old woodpecker holes, tree cavities, squirrel holes, and bird nest boxes if the opening is large enough, according to Foss. Neighbors suspect their owls are nesting in a hollow tree but have not been able to confirm it.
“We’re keeping our wits about us,” Patrick Hansen said, noting that his two young daughters are opting to stay inside for now. After dark he is driving to his sister’s – across the street.
It is welcome news to all that the swooping should stop soon.
“Owls are hugely valuable in our area – eat a huge variety of prey animals, from insects like cicadas and big roaches to snakes and more,” Foss said. “They are all protected under state and federal laws.”
Lear said he hopes people can still appreciate the parenting that is happening now and said it is crucial to the survival of the owlets.
After many years of hosting owls in his own backyard, the parents were lost this year, presumably taken by Cooper’s hawks that have been hanging around all spring.
Mom Owlivia went missing first, right as the babies were fledgling.
“Her mate Owlapeño did the best he could as a single dad of four owlets,” he said. “The runt baby fell out of the nest box a couple of days after Owlivia went missing, and I took it to the Wildlife Center of Texas. A few days after that, Owlapeño disappeared, leaving three starving orphans not able to care for themselves. Two had already fledged and were not reachable by me. I climbed the ladder to get the one left in the nest box and took him to the Wildlife Center of Texas. So hopefully two of the four babies made it. It’s a rough life.”