Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, January 11, 2019

Barred Owl in the News

Barred Owl

This week I got an email from one of my friends, David Figura, a journalist in Syracuse, New York, wanting information about owls after seeing a surprising video on social media. His article on read:
A Rensselaer County man got up close and personal recently with a wayward barred owl that flew into his truck while he was driving.
“The thing just flew into my window. It hit me in the face. I’m cut up,” said Jeremy Dodge on a video of the Jan. 2 incident he posted on his Facebook page.
Dodge, of Averill Park, said was driving down Route 66 to get some Chinese food that evening. The bird settled on his front passenger seat.  
Before posting his news article, Dave wrote to me to verify the bird’s identification, and also to ask if I had any thoughts on how it happened. He asked, “Was it possibly hanging around the roadway looking for, or feasting on roadkill, or just an oddity in the outdoors?” He quoted my response verbatim:
Many owls hunt along roadsides. People carelessly tossing food into ditches are unfortunately subsidizing rodents that in turn attract predators. And owls tend to fly exactly at windshield or car window height.  
When Jeremy Dodge posted his video, it instantly started a ruckus on social media, quickly amassing tens of thousands of views.

A lot of viewers posted comments. Most everyone thought it was amazing and/or hilarious. Some of the responses were pretty hilarious, but few people really knew anything about owls.

Several people commented on the way Jeremy Dodge had reached over and stroked the owl on the forehead between the eyes. Owls resemble cats, and so that’s a natural human response to an owl. A couple of people insisted that the fact that the owl leaned into this meant that the owl was somehow a domesticated bird, responding like a pet cat. I pointed out that this is how owls responded when I stroked wild owls to calm them when I was a wildlife rehabilitator. Siblings, parents, and mated owls naturally allopreen, using their beaks to preen one another’s facial feathers above and between the eyes, and the bird being allopreened responds exactly in the way Jeremy Dodge’s Barred Owl did. My education owl Archimedes leaned in like that from the very first night I had him in my possession.

Hardly anyone mentioned the old superstition about owls portending a death despite the fact that in this case, the guy could have had a heart attack or crashed his car in the first few seconds—the bird had hit him on the side of his face before inertia and its flapping wings carried it beyond the driver to the other half of the front seat.

Much more often when an owl’s path crosses ours, it goes far worse for the owl than for the human. Wildlife rehabilitators still treat a distressing number of hawks and owls each year for firearm injuries. Had the weather been more seasonable, Jeremy Dodge would not have been driving with his window open, and even then it was improbable that the bird would hit the open window. As I told David Figura for his article,
This was a case of the bird winging across at exactly the wrong time. It could have gone worse, at least for the owl—it could have been a split second earlier and been struck hitting the windshield, or it could have been a split second later and hit the closed back window.  
Dodge pulled his car over for some of the brief video, then got out and opened the passenger door. He said goodbye to the owl, which he repeatedly called “dude,” and the bird flew off into the night. It very well may have had a head injury—his cellphone flashlight reflected differently off one eye than the other, which may have been an artifact of angle but also suggested possible head or eye trauma—but the bird did appear to fly well and may well be recovering just fine on its own. 

With luck, it’ll not just recover but learn to avoid roads. But then, how likely is it that people are learning from this video to stop throwing apple cores and other rodent food out their car windows, ensuring a continued rodent population along roadsides? And how many people will start driving slower to avoid most of these collisions in the first place?

Surviving traumatic events is often a matter of luck. Learning from them? Humans and owls reportedly both belong to intelligent species, but how well either of us learn from our mistakes, or even realize when something bad happens that we made a mistake, is a question for the ages.