Montgomery Parks Warns of ‘Aggressive Owl’ Living Along Popular Trail in Bethesda

Department official says owl has struck some trail users from behind, likely mistaking people for prey

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Montgomery Parks posted this sign along the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda warning trail users of "an aggressive owl." Credit: Aaron Kraut

Updated at 5:40 p.m. – Capital Crescent Trail users in Bethesda were given a heads up this week about “an aggressive owl” that Montgomery Parks officials believe has taken up residence near the trail and is mistaking reflective objects and people’s ponytails for prey.

Bill Hamilton, principal natural resources specialist for Montgomery Parks, said the barred owl is living somewhere along the trail just north of River Road “and has been threatening users with aggressive behaviors which have included striking individuals from behind.”

No serious injuries have been reported, but Parks has posted signage warning trail users of the owl along the trail between River Road and Dorset Avenue.

Hamilton said the owl is likely a juvenile that “may be displaying territorial behavior.”

Abigail Klaus, a Chevy Chase resident who said she was attacked by the owl earlier this month, thought she had run into a tree branch when the owl swooped down and attempted to snatch a running lamp off her head.

"My friend looked at me and said, 'There was a bird on you.' She just saw my head surrounded by wings," said Klaus, who was running on the trail at about 5:30 a.m.

Klaus said the owl swooped down a few minutes later as the pair ran on the trail toward Little Falls Parkway, leaving her with a scrape on her neck and some soreness from the impact of the owl making contact.

"We obviously didn't go back that way," Klaus said. She reported the incident to Montgomery Parks.

The incidents have all happened near dawn or dusk, when owls and other nocturnal hunters are known to be most active.

The park department's safety policy advises trail users to use the trail only between sunrise and sunset.

Hamilton said tucking ponytails into a hat or verbalizing a human presence while on the specified section of the trail “may help to reduce the chance of attack.”

A sign warning trail users about the owl reads: “The simple movement of a ponytail may resemble an animal’s tail. Owls will defend their territory from anything, and have been known to strike at people.”

A recent study from Montgomery Parks showed that 70,000 bicyclists and pedestrians used at least part of the trail in June in Bethesda. A 2006 study conducted by the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail estimated 1 million people per year used the trail.

One of the signs posted by Montgomery Parks reminds pedestrians and bicyclists that they aren’t the only ones using the trail and surrounding environment.

“Trails are shared by all, people and wildlife,” the sign reads.

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