Nfld. & Labrador

Rare owl attack leaves Rigolet woman with head wound

Carly Blake was outside her Rigolet home one evening shovelling when she went to retrieve something from her backyard. Minutes later, an owl struck her in the back of the head.

Conservation officer says it's the first time he's ever heard of this kind of behaviour from the animal

Attacks involving great horned owls, like the one seen here, are uncommon. (Mike Symington/CBC)

For birdwatchers, just catching a glimpse of a great horned owl is rare. But a Labrador woman recently had an even more unusual experience: having one slam into the back of her head.

Carly Blake was outside her Rigolet home one evening shovelling when she went to retrieve something from her backyard. Suddenly, something struck Blake in the back of the head.

"In my mind I was thinking [that] if somebody threw a snowball, that wouldn't hit as hard," she said.

"Then I was thinking the only thing out there was my pile of wood, and I thought maybe somebody might have picked up a hunk of wood and fired it, and hit me in the head."

When she turned around to face her assailant, Blake was instead confronted by the shadow of a large bird.

"I thought then, 'Oh my God, a bird,'" Blake said. "And all I could think of then was claws, and what kind of damage is done to my head."

The great horned owl that had attacked her flew off, while Blake stood motionless, worried that it might have just retreated to the trees nearest her home and would strike again.

"I never heard a thing, not a sound, because they don't make any noise. I didn't know until I was banged in the head."

The average weight of a great horned owl is 1.4 kilograms, the weight of a small sack of potatoes.

Brake suffered a cut, nearly four inches along the top of her head, that required a suture, as well as a number of smaller cuts around the side of her head, but the blunt-force trauma was most shocking.

"Immediately after I got hit," Blake said, "I put my hand up to my head and I could feel my head swelling up in my hand."

Woman needed suture following attack

David Wolfrey, a conservation officer for the Nunatsiavut government in Rigolet, said the great horned owl had been hanging around the community for the past few evenings, with some residents noticing it in the trees near their homes.

Wolfrey had just finished dinner when he received a call about the owl attacking Blake, and he and other conservation officials went looking for it. Given the attack, they killed the owl when they found it.

Rigolet is a remote, coastal Labrador Inuit community. (Google Maps)

It's unusual for this kind of bird to attack someone, he said. Wolfrey has seen plenty of owls in his life, but he's never seen, let alone heard of one attacking someone..

"I never heard tell of a horned owl attacking a person," said Wolfrey, "and I'm 60 years old. It's something strange."

I don't know what the horned owl was thinking. Must've been hungry, I guess.- David Wolfrey 

No one he's spoken with is familiar with this kind of behaviour either, he said. In the only other instance he's heard about, an owl allegedly attacked a trapper for his snared game.

"I talked to someone in the wildlife division this morning. She said she heard tell of a trapper one time getting attacked by a horned owl, but the trapper had rabbits on his back," Wolfrey said. "So the horned owl must've been after the rabbits on that guy."

Owl was likely hungry

While a great horned owl going after rabbits makes sense, Wolfrey said, in this case Blake was just standing in her backyard.

"I don't know what the horned owl was thinking," he said. "Must've been hungry, I guess."

Blake agrees the owl may have been hungry, which she said is strange given the amount of rabbits in the area.

"There's a lot of rabbits around," Blake said. "So everyone is saying it's strange that it would attack somebody with that amount of rabbits that are roaming around."

The body of the owl has been sent to Happy Valley-Goose Bay for examination, to determine if there were any other factors, like illness, that may have caused it to become aggressive.

What Wolfrey can't understand though is why the bird would go after a bigger target when there were easier meals available. Not long before it struck Blake, there had been children playing in the area.

"I don't understand why he attacked a big adult when there were pets out around," he said. "Thank God it wasn't a child— it would have probably killed a child with the smack that she had."

As strange a circumstance as it was, both Wolfrey and Blake are glad that not only did the owl not attack any children, but that the attack on Blake wasn't any worse.

"It was lucky that it hit her from the back of her head," said Wolfrey. "Lucky that it never hit her in the face, or it would have been a different story."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Conor McCann is a freelance writer and journalist from St. John's.

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