NEW GLOUCESTER — Perhaps Pineland Farms should rename one of its award-winning cheeses “Owl Attack Asiago.” That kind of promotion worked in Salem, Oregon.

A recent owl attack on a cross country skier at Pineland Farms attracted media attention last week, making the staff at the Nordic ski center smile at the soaring publicity, so to speak.

“It’s a cool story,” said Pineland Farms spokesman Matt Sabasteanski. “The interesting thing is we’re on 5,000 acres. But where this occurred is near the cow barn, on the edge of the woods. It’s not deep in the forest.”

Bird and wildlife experts in Maine say attacks by owls are not unusual when the raptors are protecting their nests during the winter breeding season. But owls – who are nocturnal and not frequently seen – have a way of grabbing the public’s attention.

Ted Hall of Yarmouth made sure to keep his ski poles close after two swoops by a barred owl at Pineland Farms. Good decision, because after he stood, the owl made a third swoop. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The incident occurred Dec. 27. Ted Hall of Yarmouth was going for his usual ski workout at Pineland Farms when he was hit on the head by what he believed was a barred owl. He never heard it coming.

Hall said at first he thought he was hit by a heavy branch that came loose from a Christmas Day snowstorm. But after falling to his side, Hall looked up and saw the large owl coming toward his head a second time. The bird swooped above Hall’s head at the last moment.

After he stood, Hall sidestepped up the hill as he watched the raptor sitting on a tree limb 10 feet away. Adult barred owls can be up to 2 feet tall and have a wingspan of 4 feet. Hall said the bird didn’t have the ear tufts of a great horned owl.

“It roosted right in a tree near me,” he said. “It was looking at me and I was looking at it. It was not very high in the tree. I kind of yelled at it.”

Hall, 65, a former school principal and Nordic ski coach, said the owl started rotating its head, as owls do.

“I thought it would fly away,” he said. “I got myself up and kept my eye on the owl. I didn’t take my phone out, although I could have gotten a great photo. I was more focused on keeping my poles in my hand in case it did anything else. I just had this feeling I should keep my eye on it. I backed up the trail, and as I did, it swooped over me a third time.”

Maine Audubon Naturalist Doug Hitchcox said it’s not unusual for the bigger owls to swoop at people or even knock them with their talons during the winter breeding season.

“I’ve definitely heard of it before,” Hitchcox said. “I don’t think any of these birds want to particularly chase humans, but they’ll do what’s necessary to defend their nests.

“The more we encroach on wildlife habitat, the more we’re going to have interactions with humans and wildlife. I think we need to learn to be more sensitive of them.”

Two years ago in Salem, Oregon, an owl attack on four joggers went viral and was featured on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.” The attention led the city to produce and sell owl-attack signs that brought in $23,000 in revenue, helping to build a new playground.

“People loved it,” said Tibby Larson, the volunteer coordinator with the Salem Parks Department. “Nobody seemed really scared. Some people went running through the park in the hope the owl would attack them. We got letters from all over the world – letters from a village in Great Britain, where they had owl attacks. Some wrote from Canada and Alaska, where there were owl attacks. It was a worldwide story.”

Such owl behavior is not widespread but not unusual, said bird experts in Maine.

A similar attack occurred in the Bangor City Forest near the Orono Bog in 2009, said Jerry Longcore, a board member of the Orono Land Trust.

This is Bianca, a barred owl, at the Center for Wildlife in York, and not the owl causing such a stir in New Gloucester after its aggressive attack on a cross country skier Dec, 27. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Kristen Lamb, director of the Center for Wildlife in York, said she’s heard of great horned owls and barred owls defending their nests by swooping at people. And yet, she said because owls are nocturnal and secretive, they aren’t frequently seen.

“It’s kind of a cool reminder of Maine’s wildness, and that something unexpected could happen like that,” Lamb said.

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or:

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