Was it an eagle or an owl?

A wildlife biologist says a New Brunswick couple who claim their small dog was attacked by an eagle are most likely mistaken, and he suggests people everywhere should get to know what's in their own backyards.

Dominic Cormier, a Nova Scotia biologist, said he sympathizes with Gilles Daigle and his wife Sonia Doucet-Daigle, but the bird that attacked their dog Samson was most likely a great horned owl.

Cormier said there is a serious need to educate people about nature and wildlife.

"Try to get someone to name 15 bird species for you," he said. "They might, but it's so rare."

Ended the attack

Not that rare, according to Gilles Daigle, who was standing beside his wife when the bird attacked Samson, their Bichon Frise-Pomeranian, in their yard one night last week.

"It's not an owl," Daigle said after hearing of Cormier's view. "I know what an owl looks like."

Sonia Doucet-Daigle described the raptor as a large, black eagle with a wingspan of 1.2 metres. The bird didn't release its claws until whacked with a shovel by her husband, she said.

"My husband was hitting to kill," she said in a previous interview with CBC. "It took a lot."

The small dog suffered seven puncture wounds and a bloody eye and ear, and lost several teeth and some skin from the top of his head.

Great horned owl

Dominic Cormier, a wildlife biologist, says it was likely a great horned owl that attacked a 6½-pound dog in Beresford one night last week. (Jason Corbett)

Cormier suggested the trauma of the attack might explain Doucet-Daigle's confusion.

"At that moment she's not saying, 'Oh, I wonder what species is attacking my dog," he said. "She's in shock."

But eagles are daytime predators, he said. Their eyes are made to hunt in the day, and they have terrible eyesight at night.

Eagle vs. owl

"It may be possible at some point in life, an eagle has hunted at night," Cormier said. "It's so rare you would be hard-pressed to find an example."

Great horned owls are smaller than bald eagles, but not by much.  

Cormier said a great horned owl is a half-metre in length, with a wingspan of 1.1 metres. A bald eagle, the most common eagle in New Brunswick, is .7 metres long, with wingspan of about two metres.

"Things always look bigger at night," Cormier said.

'Great horned owls have a much deadlier strike with their claws.' - Dominic Cormier

Cormier said great horned owls are a widespread predator in New Brunswick that feed primarily on rodents, particularly rabbits. But they can attack cats and small dogs.

Great horned owls also have more force than an eagles, but eagles can pick up bigger prey.

"Great horned owls have a much deadlier strike with their claws," he said.

"If you got punctured by a great horned owl, the only way you're getting your arm back is if it lets go. That was the case with the dog. too. The bird finally let go."