This latest installment of Nature in Your Backyard comes courtesy of my friend and colleague, Colleen Brannen.

Last Wednesday evening, while strolling home from the gym, Colleen decided to take a shortcut through her neighborhood park. It’s a lovely little urban park, a postage stamp parcel with many big, old oak trees, the kind that give Raleigh its nickname as the “City of Oaks.” Colleen was enjoying her quiet walk home when all of a sudden…


She felt a wallop across the backside of head. Startled and stunned, she turned around, and tried to figure out what just happened.

Her first thought: A mugger hit me. But nope, no one around.

Second thought: Maybe a branch fell and hit me. Nope, no fallen branches anywhere in sight.

Third thought: Clumsy squirrel? Nada.

She couldn’t find a single, logical explanation for the thump she just received on the back of the head. And it hurt. Her hair – which had been tied up in a ponytail holder – was all pulled out and flying every which way.

And then her eyes drifted up to a tree branch, 20 feet away. There, she saw a large hawk with a reddish breast, giving her the stare down.

I think that hawk just grabbed me.

Her suspicions were confirmed by a man walking his dog:

Did that hawk just grab you? It flew by your head twice.

Yes, yes it did. Not once, but twice. And she has the puncture wounds on her scalp to show for it.

Listen to Colleen’s first-person account of the encounter.

Once the shock (and bleeding, although it was nothing 15 minutes with a cold compress couldn’t stop) subsided, Colleen sought some answers.

She reached out to Dr. Ted Simons, professor and resident bird guru in the Department of Applied Ecology, at NC State. Based on her description of the bird’s plumage and its aggressive behaviors, Ted suspected that Colleen was swooped by a red-shouldered hawk.

Red-shouldered hawks are nesting right now throughout the Southeast and are known to be fiercely protective of their nests. In fact, patrons at a Port Orange, Florida library were similarly dive-bombed by a protective pair of hawks earlier in April. Colleen suspects there was a nest hidden in the treetops, close to the point of her attack.

Although she’ll probably avoid her neighborhood park for the next couple weeks, allowing some time and space for the hawk’s chicks to fledge the nest, Colleen bears no ill will towards her avian attacker.

In fact, after nursing her wounds last Wednesday evening, Colleen sent an email to the Raleigh City Parks to let them know what happened. By 8am, there was a sign posted at the entrance of the park, alerting folks to this hawk’s less-than-friendly style of neighborhood watch.

Many thanks to our colleague and talented biological illustrator, Dr. Jennifer Landin, who was inspired by Colleen’s account and painted the beautiful watercolor featured in the header above.