Residents in an Ahwatukee Foothills neighborhood enjoy watching great horned owls fly around their homes but found out through a close call that those birds can be dangerous to small dogs.
"We just couldn't believe it," Carol Smith said. "We always thought (the family dog) was safe as long as we were in the yard. We used to let him just lay out there, before it gets too hot. Then the owl came down once. It was pretty shocking."
The couple has been watching two owls in their neighbor's tree for at least six weeks. The two adult great horned owls built a nest in the palm tree and have been staying nearby to take care of the babies. Around sun set each night they begin to fly around and hunt for food.
"We were sitting out and the big owl was in the pine tree behind our house," said Dan Smith, Carol's husband. "I was watching him fly back and forth. It wasn't unusual at first because a lot of times they'll sort of swoop down and go back up. By the time I realized that he wasn't going back up he was across the neighbor's yard and his talons were so close to my dog. I stood up and clapped my hands."
The owl was scared away by Dan's reaction and didn't end up getting the dog. Since then they've learned they may need to be more diligent about keeping an eye on their dog.
The Smiths have seen the owls snatch birds out of the air and they've found pieces of rabbits and birds left behind but they never imagined the owls would come after their dog. Since their close call they've heard stories of friends in Sun City who had owls try to get dogs that were on a leash.
Darren Julian, urban wildlife specialist for Arizona Game and Fish, says the owls may be searching for food when they come after dogs or they may just be protecting their young.
"If they are nesting and they have young then they're going to need more food to feed the young," Julian said. "A domestic pet may be something they could use as a food source. The other thing is they may look at the pet as a potential threat to their young, especially as the young are getting ready to leave the nest."
The Arizona Game and Fish Department groups owls with other birds of prey such as falcons, eagles and hawks and gives them the name of raptors.
They say the birds can be beautiful to watch and helpful for keeping the rodent population down but they may cause problems when they try to take domestic pets.
According to AZGFD's website, azgfd.gov, raptors are attracted to areas that have water sources and owls especially like building nests in high places for a better view for hunting.
They eat rodents, birds, snakes, rabbits and insects and can also hunt small animals like dogs, cats and chickens. They're most common during their migration period from September to April.
Raptors are protected by law so unless they are causing major problems or are in danger of hurting themselves, they should not be removed.
The Smiths say they don't want the birds removed. They enjoy watching them each night.
"You just have to be more diligent," Dan said. "I'm not wanting to get rid of them. I might be singing a different song if he had gotten my dog."
AZGFD recommends keeping small pets in an enclosed area or supervising them while outside. If a bird starts to dive at people it's a good idea to carry an umbrella for protection and avoid the area. The bird is probably trying to protect its nest. AZGFD also warns that raptors may spend a few days on the ground while learning to fly and they should not be touched unless they look sick or injured.
This is the first time the owls have come to this neighborhood. It's hard to tell how many babies they started with but at least two have fallen from the tree and died. One remains and may be there awhile until it learns to fly. Once the baby is gone the owls will probably go further away from the nest. For now they'll stay within eye sight of it, Julian said.
Until then the Smiths are enjoying watching them fly and keeping a close eye on their small dog.
For more information about living with urban wildlife, visit azgfd.gov/urbanwildlife.
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