Death From Above: Beware

the Birds of Prey

Steven Neill


Copyright 2020 by Steven Neill


Photo of a great horned owl.

The Michael Peterson Murder Trial
It's a scene straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. On the night of December 09, 2001, in Durham, North Carolina, Kathleen Peterson, a successful Nortel business executive, was outside on her lawn when something struck the side of her head. Jolted by the impact, the pain seared her awake from her alcohol-induced stupor. Instinctively trying to push away the animal tangled in her hair, her hand came away covered with blood and small feathers as she desperately fought the claws that were raking the side of her head. Frantically she moved towards the house and struggled to free her tormentor. As the seconds blurred, the owl was finally able to free itself from her hair and with a great push, sped away into the night.

Confused, bleeding, and semi-drunk, Kathleen went into her house and started up her stairs only to stumble back down, breaking her neck. Forty-five minutes later, her husband, Michael Peterson, would find her body at the bottom of the staircase in a pool of blood.

The case became a national sensation, even generating a 10 hour documentary on the trial when the local sheriff decided to try Michael for his wife's murder. It had all the juicy details the tabloids love. The husband had been having a long term affair with a man, another woman in Michael's past had also died at the bottom of a staircase, and he stood to inherit $1.5 million from Kathleen's insurance policy. After the testimony of State Bureau of Investigation analyst Duane Deaver concerning the blood spatters, Peterson was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2011, Peterson would be granted a retrial and released from prison because the prosecution's star witness had misrepresented his forensic expertise and made deliberately false statements about the bloodstain evidence.

Finally, in March 2017, Peterson would enter an Alfred plea for involuntary manslaughter in exchange for time already served to close the case.

So what about the owl? In 2009 a former neighbor of Peterson's and a practicing lawyer T. Lawrence Pollard recalled other owl attacks in the neighborhood. They theorized that a barred owl had attacked Kathleen before she ran into the house, falling backward on the stairs and dying of a broken neck.

Forensic evidence of owl feathers and a wooden sliver from a tree branch that lodged in the piece of scalp found in Kathleen's hand would help validate Pollard's theory. Also, three expert ornithologists looked at the forensic evidence and determined that the wounds Kathleen suffered matched perfectly with injuries other people had received from owl attacks.

The owl theory and evidence were never presented in court because Peterson took the Alfred deal to avoid a new trial. Whether Michael murdered Kathleen or if an owl wounded her and she fell to her death will never be known, but the evidence of the owl attack is solid enough to convince several experts.

The Taung Skeleton
There is, however, no doubt that a powerful raptor caused the death of a small child in Taung, North-Western South Africa. In 1924 an ancient child's skull was discovered along with bones from monkeys and other small animals. For decades leopards or saber-toothed cats were thought to be the culprit of killing the child, but in 2004, Professor Lee Berger was able to match the scars conclusively on the child's skull with ones left by raptors.

As beautiful as they are, raptors have a long history of attacking people who came too close to their nest and, in the case of the Taung child, for food. We continue to disregard them as irrelevant and harmless.

Pet's and Raptor's
While raptor attacks on humans are quite rare, their attacks on pets are far more common. Sadly, most people only learn this fact after they have lost their pets to hunters from the sky.

I will admit to it; I am one of those people who have always had cats or dogs around to strike up those in-depth, meaningful discussions you can't have with anyone else. I mean come on, who else is going to listen to you with such apparent interest when you talk about the jerk that cut you off on the way home or how you should have been the one selected to be the next CEO of the company. Pets are precious, and it seems, the smaller they are, the more they get noticed.

Sadly, it is not just people who notice them. Dave, a friend of mine, who lives in a housing development nestled among large numbers of mature Ponderosa Pine trees, walked his eight-pound female Pomeranian named Sushi, with his wife, another couple and their dog. It was summer, so they were taking their walk in the cool of the later evening. Chit chatting as close friends often do, they became absorbed in their conversations, making for an enjoyable evening.

Without warning, Sushi let out a scream, and her leash was ripped out from Dave's hand, shattering the evening's magic. Dave's looked on helplessly as his beloved Sushi was ripped from the ground by the claws of a Great Horned Owl. The owl strained to get Sushi airborne but was not strong enough to carry her into the canopy of the trees, so it dropped Sushi from about twenty feet up in the air. Whether Sushi died by the owl's attack, the fall or a combination will never be known, but she was dead by the time Dave reached her.

On August 12, 2013, in Beech Island, South Carolina, William Grace was awakened from his nap by the terrifying scream of his ten-year-old ten pounds Pomeranian. Grace ran out of his house and into his back yard to find a large hawk devouring his dog, named Tee. Grace wanted to kill the bird, but raptors are federally protected, so all he could do was chase the bird away and bury his buddy.

Pets weighing as much as sixty pounds are on record as having been attacked by birds of prey. Though the instances of pets killed by raptors are not familiar, it happens often enough that those who share a special bond with their furry friends should take some precautions if any raptors live in your neighborhood.

Pets on the menu:

First, any pet under twenty pounds is at serious risk from a raptor whose natural prey is generally rodents, birds, rabbits, snakes, and insects. But they are opportunistic animals, so dogs, puppies, cats, ferrets, guinea pigs, ducks, rabbits, or chickens can quickly join the menu. Even rarer but still possible are attacks on larger animals and sometimes even humans to protect their nest.

The perpetrators:

The Great Horned Owl (Bubo Virginianus) is responsible for the highest number of attacks on pets. These birds are common in most habitats, cities, and suburban areas and are the most common owl in the world. They are large and aggressive birds, often reaching 22" high and having a 50" wingspan. They are masters of camouflage and are almost silent when they fly, so generally, the only time their prey knows one is around is after they have suffered the attack. Their regular food is rodents, small to medium-sized mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, ducks, geese, hawks, and even other owls. They have few qualms with attacking skunks, raccoons, and opossums, so smaller dogs, and cats are not a stretch for them. They are generally nocturnal hunters but can be active in the day during the winter.

The next most common threat to pets is the Northern Goshawk (Accipiter Gentilis). They are generally between 16" - 21" high with a 40" – 46" wingspans. They are found throughout the northern states, Canada and Alaska and into the lower state occasionally. They prefer old-growth forests and generally put their nest in a large tree by a clearing and within a short distance to a lake or river. Beautiful and prized by falconers, these magnificent birds mate for life and will aggressively protect their territory. Their menu is a smorgasbord of various critters as they feed on hawks (accipiter's), grouse, woodpeckers, jays, crows, ravens, squirrels, rabbits, sometimes carrion and other smaller mammals.

Another threat to pets is the Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo Jamaicensis). This hawk is widespread and found throughout the Continental US and most of Canada. One reason they are familiar is that they are so adaptable. They thrive in deserts, tundra, grasslands, forests, marches, and suburban areas around the country. They are generally 18" – 22" tall with a 45" – 52" wingspan. The diet of these hawks is variable, consisting of other birds (up to the size of a pheasant), small mammals such as voles, rats, rabbits, and ground squirrels, reptiles, bats, amphibians, insects and sometimes even carrion.

Though known for devouring koi in people's fish ponds, the Great Blue Heron (Ardea Herodias) will, when given the opportunity, eat small amphibians, snakes, little birds, chipmunks, squirrels, small rabbits, ducks, chickens, and small pets. Given a chance, any raptor may be willing to make a meal out of a family pet. So be especially wary of the Great Gray Owl, the Barred Owl, the Coopers Hawk, and the Sharp-Shinned Hawk if they are around your house.

Tips on Protecting Your Pet
  • The most important thing you can do to protect your pets is to stay with them while they are outside. To be an effective deterrent to raptors, you must remain visible to the birds, so avoid remaining under a tree, canopy, or roof while your pet is playing. Birds are far less likely to attack your pets when you are standing right next to them.
  • The safest way to leave your pet outside and unsupervised is to build a covered pet enclosure for them. The roof provides shade from the sun, shelter from the rain and protection from raptors, while the fencing keeps them from escaping and safe from other threats.
  • If a fenced and covered pet run is out of the question, place your pet under the canopy of a tree and near shrubs, making it harder for the bird to attack them.
  • If possible, take more than one pet at a time to exercise or go potty. The extra animals will intimidate the bird.
  • Pets should never chase birds. It is harmful to the birds and could be disastrous to the pet should it run-up to a raptor for some fun.
  • Don't feed birds that feed on the ground, such as quail, doves, grouse, and roadrunners. They attract birds of prey that may see your pet as a quick meal.
  • Feed your pet indoors, which helps them to keep focused on their surroundings, not on the food. It also prevents leftover food from attracting mice, rats, squirrels, and rats that are themselves targets of birds of prey.
  • If you know, there is a bird of prey in your area, put up moving, shiny objects out in the yard, such as silver streamers, which will intimidate the birds.
  • If a bird of prey is frequently eating the songbirds at your feeder, your only real option is to stop feeding the birds for a week and hope the raptor moves to another area before refilling your feeder.
  • For those who take their pets on hikes or other outdoor activities, there are talon proof vests available online.
Always try to avoid areas where raptors are known to hunt when walking or exercising your pet. Understand that ALL raptors are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, making it illegal to injure, capture, or kill any of them, or even to disturb its nest or offspring. The law does not allow pet owners to claim to protect their pets as a viable defense for harming a bird, and they may be subject to either severe fines or jail time or both.
While this article focuses on protecting your pet from raptors, following the above steps can help protect them from other dangers such as coyotes, foxes, bears, and other dogs, as well as busy streets and evil-intentioned humans.
Even though it is rare, bird attacks on pets happen. You can help protect your pet and limit a raptor's ability to attack your pet by using the simple yet effective methods above so you can continue to discuss life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with your pets.


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Steven Neill is from Spokane Valley, WA. He has been an avid writer for almost 20 years. Steve has had articles published for the Journal of the American Revolution, and the North Country Center for Independent Living (four articles). He graduated from Whitworth University with a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management with a minor in English, received a certificate of Merit from Legends, Creative Writing Club, and served on the Spokane Valley Planning Committee for three and a half years. Steve is transitioning to a full-time freelance writer.

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