Heads Up: My Encounters with Owls as a Trail Runner

Kelsey Hoffman recounts her experiences sharing the trails with territorial owls during trail runs and offers some advice on how to avoid their talons.
Kelsey Hoffman Kelsey Hoffman
1-year member and ultra-runner
November 11, 2023
Heads Up: My Encounters with Owls as a Trail Runner
An owl at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Photo by Kelsey Hoffman.

Lore has it that owls are wise creatures. So, what does it mean when, as a runner, barred owls repeatedly attack me? This is not a joke. 

Many runners have a close-to-home training route they develop that incorporates training elements, accessible bathrooms, and beautiful views. My go-to route takes me around and through Queen Anne. The route starts with a slog up the northern side of the Queen Anne hill, then follows a dirt goat path that parallels the popular Queen Anne Loop. About a mile into that trail, I take a right and head into the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Yes, the cemetery. It is beautiful, quiet, hilly, and has stunning views of the sunrise. I love running on the road that winds through the cemetery, and I love reflecting on the lives of the people who are buried here. 

Owls also love this beautiful location. 

How it Happens

I pride myself on getting my runs in early. By the time I get to the cemetery, it’s usually just light enough to run without a headlamp. In fall, winter, and spring, I often wear hoodies or hats. My hat-wearing habit is fairly consistent, which is excellent because in the spring of 2019, I started being attacked by owls in the graveyard. 

The first time an owl struck me, I thought a softball had hit me on the back of my head. I was running up a slight hill and when I got hit, I stumbled forward, nearly falling. I stopped and looked around for a softball or a person. It was just after 5am and the graveyard was deserted. I am not superstitious, but it was hard to keep my mind from straying to the realm of the supernatural. 

Was running in the cemetery angering a ghost? Had I upset the long dead? I kept running and looking over my shoulder. I ran downhill and back up the east side of Queen Anne. Then it happened again. Just as I reached the crest of the hill, I got hit, hard, on the back of my head. This time I had the sense to look around. All I saw was a flash of wings and a large shape in the trees. 

You would think I would change my running route now that there was a vicious owl on the loose. But I kept at it. I had been running this route almost daily for a year and I was not about to switch it up to avoid another chance encounter.

Sharing the Trails

The attacks did not stop. After the first encounter, they started happening regularly until I finally admitted defeat and changed my route. 

But my new route up Fremont Ave to the Woodland Park Zoo had owls, too. Every few months I’d get swooped on near the zoo parking lot. 

I changed my route again. The next spring, and the spring after that, I started to see and be swooped on by owls along the Coal Creek and Red Town trails.

One year, the Coal Creek Trail’s maintenance crew posted signs warning people of owl attacks. At least I got some warning before being swooped on!

Owl’s Wisdom

The last time an owl divebombed me was late one evening last fall when I was walking from my graduate school class on the University of Washington Seattle campus. I had a helmet on and was walking my bike as a classmate and I talked. The owl dived at us from the front, allowing a good view of its majestic wings and sharp talons. An owl on a university campus seemed like a fitting metaphor for gaining wisdom around owl encounters. I decided to do some research. 

What have I learned from these encounters? Barred owls are territorial, especially in spring. If you are running at dawn and dusk, you increase the likelihood of spooking an owl that’s out on a hunt. 

If you are attacked by an owl, chances are they are nesting nearby. Try changing up your route for the season. If my experience counts for anything, the owl will not get used to you. It will not be your friend, and it will not deliver your Hogwarts acceptance letter. 

Another interesting tidbit: after speaking to a bird biologist, I learned that owls often attack people with hats on.  I was always wearing a hat when attacked, which I thought to be a good thing. If the owl’s sharp talons could put holes in my hats, what could it do to my unprotected head? Turns out that my hats might have been the reason I was consistently targeted. I don’t recommend taking on an owl, especially without some head protection, but it does make me wonder if these attacks could have been avoided by wearing less headgear. 

At the end of the day, trails are home to many wild creatures and I try to be thankful for the opportunity to experience nature in all its glory. I now pay closer attention to when I run, where I run, what I wear, and what season I am running in. 

For another story about encountering owls on trails in Washington, check out this NPR article.

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Ivan Shepherd
Ivan Shepherd says:
Nov 18, 2023 10:38 PM

I had a similar experience with nesting barred owls in Sammamish over the winter a couple years ago. My trail run at night brought me by a nest and being swooped I thought I was hit by a bat diving for bugs in the headlamp. The second hit I could only reason someone had smacked me in the head which was really upsetting out in the woods by yourself. At that point I saw the owl on it's third dive and more scared then after any bear encounter I scooted out of there. Luckily I had a baseball hat on as well as a headlamp so no scratches.

Like you, I definitely factor them in now during nesting season.

Kelsey Hoffman
Kelsey Hoffman says:
Nov 21, 2023 03:44 PM

Ivan, that is wild! I'm glad I'm not the only one!

Kelsey Hoffman
Kelsey Hoffman says:
Nov 21, 2023 03:44 PM

Ivan, that is wild! I'm glad I'm not the only one!