Owl turf war in Cambridge sparks ‘swooping’ reports at Fresh Pond

Local News

Cambridge Ranger Tim Puopolo said barred owls are the most likely culprit behind recent “owl-swoop” reports at Fresh Pond.

A barred owl, one of several owl species that call Fresh Pond home. John Tlumacki/Boston Globe Staff, File

An owl turf war is heating up at Fresh Pond Reservation in Cambridge, and unsuspecting humans have seemingly been caught in the crossfire amid reports of “owl-swoops.” 

Tim Puopolo, the Cambridge ranger stationed at Fresh Pond, confirmed that the city has received reports of owls swooping at people in recent weeks. He explained in an email to Boston.com that these incidents are almost certainly the work of barred owls, one of several owl species that call the reservation home.

With mottled brown-and-white feathering and large, dark eyes, barred owls are mostly active at night and tend to favor dense and thick woods, per the National Audubon Society. 

According to Puopolo, the swooping reports have been localized to the northern side of the Fresh Pond property and are not related to nesting activity. Rather, he said there are two other factors contributing to the owls’ territorial behavior.

The first is obvious: Winter is coming, and the impending food scarcity is driving serious competition for winter hunting lines, he explained.

“Staking out your winter hunting territory often can mean life or death to an owl when food scarcity reaches its peak in January/February,” Puopolo said.

Another factor: Puopolo said owl parents typically kick their young out in the fall, creating a temporary period of overcrowding that’s compounded by a rush of inexperienced owls out on their own for the first time.

So when it comes to the recent swooping reports, Puopolo has a theory.

“In my experience, these are likely inexperienced Barred Owls out to secure their first food source on their own,” he said.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
A barred owl sits on a branch in a nearby pine tree in Whitehall State Park in January 2021. – John Tlumacki/Boston Globe Staff, File

Puopolo said mature barred owls would also be aware that great horned owls — their only natural predator — make an annual “mini-migration” to the north side of Fresh Pond this time of year in search of squirrels and chipmunks drawn to fallen nuts and acorns.

The great horned owls are preoccupied with their feast until around Thanksgiving, when they prepare for their next brood of eggs and “make it a point to expel all of the Barred Owls — something that the wiser ones expect and steer clear of,” he explained. 

The bottom line on swooping: “These owls aren’t seeking to hurt people (they have 1-inch talons and can hurt if they wanted to), but rather these swoops are a warning to large animals to move along out of the hunting territory,” Puopolo said. 

He recommended that park goers use caution and keep an eye on the clock and the sunlight — as the days grow shorter, nocturnal creatures tend to become active earlier. 

And if you find yourself face-to-face with a swooping owl? 

“If this happens to you, make your leave as swiftly as possible,” Puopolo advised.