It was like an attack scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film The Birds. Only it was just one bird — but a very BIG one, with large sharp talons.
And instead of the victim being terrified, he was “just ticked right off.”
After it was finally over, Red Deer ophthalmologist Miloslav Bozdech was left with a number of punctures in his head, maybe a little whiplash, and a story to tell that he’s beginning to see some humour in.
Bozdech’s encounter began at about 8:30 p.m. on Monday evening when he was cross-country skiing on city trails between Great Chief Park and Heritage Ranch.
He has skied there regularly in the evening since he moved to Red Deer three years ago. On this night he was dressed as usual in black, wearing a head-band to cover his ears, and a very bright headlamp strapped on his head. The only thing different than his usual attire was a white scarf around his neck.
Bozdech was tucked in, going downhill at about 18 km/h. “Suddenly I felt a whack over my head from behind, and sharp pain. It was really odd. Those two seconds when you register something is wrong.”
Was it a twig, or something else that hit him on the head, maybe a deer or moose had attacked him.
“It didn’t throw me off balance. It just bumped me forward a little bit.”
“It” turned out to be a large owl, which he first thought may have been a snowy owl, but now concedes it could have more likely been a great horned owl. Snowy owls don’t hunt at night.
“I saw this huge owl hovering over me. Then it glided over and sat in a tree and looked at me. I came to a stop. I touched my scalp, it was bleeding. It hurt.”
Maybe the owl thought he was a “big bunny rabbit” because of the white scarf, or he was upset that Bozdech was in his territory.
“Was it psychotic? … Animals can be crazy too, right?”
He chuckles. “I was just ticked right off. I was trying to throw little twigs at it. … I kicked the tree and it flew off.”
So Bozdech decided to put his skis back on, and continued skiing.
“It’s not bleeding that bad, my hair was a little matted. So I go further down and about two kilometres later, near the pond … You don’t hear a thing because they’re silent.
“Whack! The same thing. Back of my head. Sharp pain and I could see it just glided over my head, going in the same direction I was going in, and it disappeared into oblivion, into the darkness. I just couldn’t believe it!”
Great horned owls have a wingspan of up to 1.5 metres (three to five feet).
At this point, he knew it was not coincidence. “It was deliberate.” That was enough for Bozdech. He packed up his skis and went home.
Reflecting now on the incident, “It wasn’t trying to grab me. … It was almost like it just wanted to warn me, or repel me from its territory.”
He did not need medical attention but was initially concerned about infection in his scalp punctures because owls eat rodents. He has a sore neck and sore scalp but he is healing well. His patients might have to forgive him if his hair is a little longer than usual — he did cancel a haircut this week.
“I never thought I’d be attacked by a beautiful owl. It’s crazy you know. Everybody loves owls.”
In fact, Bozdech has been worried more about being attacked by moose, which he encounters often, or crashing into them or deer if they step out onto the trail while he’s zipping along. Fortunately that’s never happened. Yet.
Carol Kelly, Medicine River Wildlife Centre executive director, said that it’s quite possible it was a great horned owl. When they open their wings they can be very white underneath.
“The owls are setting up territory now for breeding and the owl might have mistaken him for something in his territory. It could be great horned owl natural behaviour.”
“It’s perfect territorial defence,” Kelly said, adding that it is extremely rare for owls to attack people.
Bozdech continues to ski, but he is now wearing a helmet until he’s sure the owl is done picking on him. “Why would it quit? It got away with it.”
He wonders if anyone else has been attacked but so far there have been no other reports.
Meanwhile, there are also those pesky squirrels, who are continually trying to trip up skiers, Bozdech said.
“They are kind of wrecking our ski trails. They throw cones on the trails and you’re going fast and it brings you to stop because that cone embeds itself in the wax … and you can go flying.”
The skiers are slowly getting savvy about knowing where the squirrels are doing this.
Perhaps Bozdech should acquaint daring owl with dastardly squirrels.