BANGOR, Maine — The owls in Bangor’s city forest are back at it again, after a series of aggressive acts a biologist said are likely designed to protect their young offspring.
According to signs posted at a trailhead in the Rolland F. Perry City Forest, several walkers or joggers had owls swoop toward them at the end of September and early in October. At least four incidents were mentioned on those signs meant to warn others about the situation.
Back in 2009, owls were even more aggressive, attacking several cross country skiers in the forest. Those episodes were mentioned six years later in a national podcast, “Criminal,” which focused on an offbeat theory about a North Carolina murder: The owl did it.
While the Bangor owls are accused of no such crime, they have startled recreational users of the popular city park.
Tracy Willette, Bangor’s director of parks and recreation, said interactions with wildlife are common at the city forest, which covers more than 680 acres not far from Bangor Mall.
“Whenever you’re at the city forest, you’re very likely to have any kind of wildlife encounter out there. It’s a huge expanse, and you’re in their territory now,” Willette said. “It’s exactly one of the things that makes it a great place to go, and a great resource to have.”
But beginning Sept. 26, according to a poster at the Tripp Drive trailhead, at least one great horned owl began making its presence known. Other incidents were reported on Oct. 4, 5 and 11.
None of those who reported aggressive owls required medical attention, as far as Willette has heard. In 2009, some received wounds from the birds’ sharp talons.
Erynn Call, raptor specialist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said fall is a key time in the life of young owls, which are leaving their parents and striking out on their own.
“Both parents take care of the young into the fall, so the species is very territorial and the mated pairs, which are monogamous, defend that territory,” Call said. “[That happens] especially in the fall, when the young are leaving the area, or in the winter, during that pre-egg-laying period. It’s a territorial action.”
Great horned owls are the largest of the 11 owl species that live in Maine, according to Call. They weigh only 3 to 5 pounds, but can stand 20 inches tall and have a wingspan of up to 5 feet. They take their prey — and shoo off joggers — with formidable talons that can be 4 to 8 inches long.
Call said that in some cases, great horned owls will try to drive off interlopers without aggressive actions.
“They will respond to intruders with threats that maybe someone hiking along wouldn’t notice or hear,” she said. “They clap their bill, and they might do some hooting and hissing. But eventually they will take flight and strike with their feet.”
Even if the owls are making noises, there’s no guarantee that hikers or joggers would hear or recognize the warnings.
“I know that a lot of folks, for example, like to run and walk with headphones or earbuds,” Willette said, counting himself among those who like to listen to music while they recreate in the forest.
Willette said that he recently learned that wildlife can pop out of the woods when you least expect it.
“I was out there trying to get myself into some sort of healthy shape. I’m going along at a little trot and there, five or six feet from me, a porcupine cuts across the path,” Willette said.
His advice: “Just look around, be aware of your surroundings, and be aware that potentially, you could have an encounter with wildlife.”
Willette said city officials can’t quantify how many people use the entire city forest parcel in a given year, but an electronic counter at the Orono Bog Boardwalk, which is on part of the property, is tripped between 26,000 and 30,000 times annually.
Willette said that in 2009, after several owl attacks on skiers, his department had signs placed at the Kittredge Road trailhead. As of Oct. 17, visitors to the forest were taking care of that duty, sharing details of the owl sightings on postings at the trailhead.
Call said she expects the owl sightings to drop as October progresses and the young birds disperse. But she noted that as the birds begin mating behavior in January, they may become more territorial again.
For those who don’t want to run across an angry bird, Call has a bit of advice.
“Probably it would be safest if you’re concerned about that to not be out around dusk or dawn,” she said. “During the day, it’s probably more unlikely to have a run-in with an owl.”