Your hike in the woods ran a little late, and suddenly it’s pitch dark. You can’t see much, except for a pair of round, yellow lights. But they have started to move. It’s an owl. And it looks angry that you’re in its territory.

Owls are hunters, and they carry that title with honor. They prepare to hunt. Their ritual includes stretching and preening, and they clean their feathers and talons before leaving to hunt. Owls are meat-eating creatures.

They also have excellent low-light vision, so they can see you, even if you can’t spot them. And they have great hearing. There are many owl species, and one of the most dangerous is the great horned owl. They have distinct feather tufts on their heads called plumicorns. And they’re known for attacking hikers.

Great horned owls can reach up to 1.5 m (5 ft) across when they spread their wings. The force of their talons is equal to a big dog’s bite. And they can carry prey that’s three times their size.

How do owls hunt silently? Why could your headphones make you a target? And how could you go to jail for fighting back?

Step 1. Listen carefully

When owls locate their prey, they’ll attack from the air after perching in a tree and waiting for the right moment. They have specific features that allow them to glide silently through the air.

Their feathers have serrated edges, like a comb. It helps them reduce the turbulence created as the air rushes over the wings when they fly. Also, their velvety feathers absorb the sounds of turbulence. This makes them great hunters, and it’s hard to hear them.

But since they don’t eat humans, they’ll let you know that they don’t want you there with sounds. They’ll try to scare you away with hissing, a cat-like sound, or by clicking their bills.

Step 2. Don’t wear a hat

Some objects that you might put on your head can make owls think you are prey, including headphones, a flashy hat, or wearing your hair in a ponytail. If your headgear moves like prey, an owl is more likely to attack you.

In 2019, a man in British Columbia, Canada, was hiking when an owl stole his cap. The owl took the hat to a tree branch and kept staring at the man. He shook the tree until the owl let the hat go. Then the owl attacked the man until he ran away.

Step 3. Carry an umbrella

If you plan to hike in an area where there are owls, it’s best to prepare. Carry a stick with a piece of fabric or an umbrella. If an attack occurs, place the umbrella over your head. The owl may target that and leave your head alone. Run away from the bird’s territory as fast as you can.

Step 4. Don’t mess with their babies

Baby owls leave their nests before they can fly. Sometimes they lie on the ground. So if you see a cute, fluffy little ball on the ground, don’t go near it. It is not an abandoned owl.

The parent is likely watching closely. So it is best to leave the baby alone, as owls are very protective of their young.

Step 5. Don’t kill them

If you come in contact with an owl, do your best to listen and understand its signs of aggression so you can avoid an attack. But if an attack happens, don’t kill the owl, even if you get injured in the attack.

They are protected birds. And you can get a hefty fine, or spend up to six months in jail, according to the 1981 Wildfire and Countryside Act, which protects owls, their nests and owl eggs.

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