ECOVIEWS: An owl attack is memorable

October 21, 2018 GMT

I once wrote a response to an absurd YouTube video showing an eagle swooping down from the skies and supposedly carrying off a small child from a playground in Canada. Further evidence that not everything you see on the internet is true. Nonetheless, a phone call from my grandson Parker brought to mind a big bird with a human in its talons.

“Grandpa! You won’t believe what just happened. An owl flew down right in my face. It scared the daylights out of me.” As the story unraveled it turns out that Parker was leaving his favorite fishing hole at dusk with his fishing rod over his shoulder and the line and lure dangling down behind his back. He had caught a couple of bass with the lure, which was a rubbery imitation of a frog. Owls and hawks, like bass, relish the idea of catching a plump frog for a meal.

Parker identified the attacker as a barred owl, which had targeted the frog and almost grabbed him in the process. When he turned around, face to face with the aerial predator, the owl aborted its prey-gathering mission, but both boy and owl got a memorable scare. He recovered in time to get a photograph of the owl after it landed in a nearby tree.

No owl alive today is ever going to view a person as prey or carry anyone away. But they do have icepick-like talons, and if they got ahold of a person even by mistake, the consequences could be severe – for the person. The idea of an aerial predator swooping down and carrying someone off for a meal is an even more chilling thought. Yet it may have happened centuries ago by an enormous raptor known as Haast’s eagle. The evidence was published by New Zealand scientists in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Biological information about Haast’s eagle is based on skeletal material the scientists examined. As with modern birds of prey, including hawks, owls and eagles, females typically got larger than males, which weighed 27 pounds. Female Haast’s eagle are estimated to have reached a body weight of over 39 pounds. The weights are based on only a few specimens, so the largest ones were probably over 40 pounds.

Forty pounds is huge for a flying bird. To put their size in perspective, the largest bald eagles are around 3 feet in body length, have an outstretched wingspan of slightly under 8 feet (which is right big in itself), but average under 15 pounds in total weight. Haast’s eagles are indisputably the largest eagles known to science.

What was the primary prey of these giant eagles? Moas, the large flightless birds native to New Zealand. Some were over 10 feet tall, larger than ostriches. Moas and Haast’s eagles are gone now, the former because of relentless hunting and the latter because its main prey base was driven to extinction. Things might have persisted in equilibrium into modern times, with big eagles eating big flightless birds, if the Maoris had not arrived in New Zealand in the late 1200s. The Maoris could easily capture and kill the moas, which had never encountered such a relentless land predator and never evolved the ability to fly. Maori’s may have killed off the moas, the main food for the eagles, but the thought comes to mind that these original settlers of the islands likely got cricks in their necks from keeping a close watch on the skies for incoming eagles. They probably admonished their children to “watch for eagles, and run like the wind if you see one.”

For Parker, the final outcome of his close encounter was a satisfactory one. Things would have been a bit more exciting if the owl had hit its mark and taken the frog lure. Reeling in a barred owl out of a tree would be a much harder task than bringing in a big bass.