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Owl pursuits: How an owl became part of a campus community

A young owl started visiting students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last fall. (Courtesy of Barb.)
A young owl started visiting students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last fall. (Courtesy of Barb.)

Last fall, freshmen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill got a new neighbor: an owl. What wasn't clear was whether the owl was trying to befriend them, or catch them.

Sometimes the owl seemed to be chasing students. Other times, it seemed to come in peace. A popular campus Instagram account reported that a woman had actually raised the owl herself. After she was spotted feeding it, the owl sightings stopped, much to the disappointment of students who'd come to consider it as a sort of mascot. Where had the owl come from, and where did it go?

Endless Thread host Ben Brock Johnson and producer Grace Tatter talk about how the owl gained online campus fame, and get a surprise update from the person who knows the owl best.

Show notes

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Ben Johnson: Grace Tatter.

Grace Tatter: Yes. That's me. Ben Brock Johnson. That’s you.

Ben: Who are you again?

Grace: I'm a producer for Endless Thread.

Ben: And this is a two-fer. It was a Grace week last week, and it's a Grace week this week. I love it.

Grace: Oh yeah. Yeah, so hopefully people aren't getting tired of my dulcet tones.

Ben: How could they ever? One thing I know about you is you're the person who introduced the HBO show The Staircase to me.

[Sound from The Staircase trailer]

Grace: Really? Is that true? At one of our highs, lows and listens? It wasn't anyone else out of the millions of people on Twitter talking about it?

Ben: Nope. Nope. It was you. It was you who – Endless Thread, folks listening out there, Endless Thread and our podcast department gets together once a week and we tell each other what our high was for the week and our low, and also our listen, and Grace hit us with the listen – this was months and maybe years ago now…

Grace: Months ago.

Ben: Months ago, with the HBO show The Staircase which involves some owl action.

Grace: Yes. At least an owl theory. Now, I can't remember if the owl theory ended up in the HBO version, but definitely in the real life case, the real life murder case that the HBO show was based on.

Ben: There's plenty of owl content in the HBO show. But you come, you come to us today with more owl content –

Grace: Yes, from that same part of the country, from the Triangle of North Carolina. For people who don't know The Staircase, it appears that this woman, Kathleen Peterson, was murdered by her husband, but some people think that she was actually killed by an owl. And that always seemed pretty far out there to me, because I've lived in the Piedmont of North Carolina for most of my life and really hadn't encountered that many owls at all, much less any killer owls. But…

Ben: Owls be out there though.

Grace: Yeah, they do. And I was talking to a friend recently and she was telling me that in Chapel Hill, where I went to school, there was a lot of chatter about a pretty –  I think violent would be the word, violent – owl. I'll send you – actually some of the Instagram videos that were going around.

Ben: Okay. Alright.

Grace: I'm gonna Slack them to you.

Ben: Oh God. Oh my god. Whoa, this owl is like cruising very close to the ground in a parking lot and uh –

[Sound from Instagram video: 

(scream) You know what? Good night y'all. I’m out. Bye!]

Ben: I don't blame him for –  it's very funny. Whoever this person is, I don't blame them for going home after this because they seem to be dive bombed by an owl, except it's not really dive bombing cuz the owl is like flying so close to the ground in this parking lot, like maybe a foot off the ground and then just like careening into the person shooting the video. The caption says, “This Hojo owl got me fucked up/ back to North campus I go.”

Grace: Yeah, so some context, because that probably doesn't make any sense to you, right?

Ben: This is a very, I feel like this is very Chapel Hill, like, for people who know the campus, this is makes sense.

Grace: Exactly. Yeah. So Hinton James is a dorm. I think a thousand freshmen live in Hinton, James. It's one of the biggest dorms definitely on campus. And it's also kind of the shittiest dorm. Like, when you get your housing assignment going into your freshman year, if you get Hinton, James, you're bummed out cuz it's the farthest away from the rest of campus.Somehow it's uphill both ways, a mile. And for a nickname we call it HoJo. The North campus, what he's referring to, are where  these beautiful historic buildings with like – the dorms have pianos in the lobby. That is not at all the case with Hinton James. It's rough.

Ben: Hinton James got owls in the parking lot. North campus has pianos in the lobby.

Grace: Exactly. It's always been character building to live in Hinton James. But when I lived there, we did, we did not have any dive bombing owls. I'm going to send you one more video of the owl

[Sound from Instagram video of a woman screaming.]

Ben: This video is hilarious.

Grace: So yeah. This is a girl. Or tell, yeah, tell them about this.

Ben: I, it's like (laughs). This should not be funny, but it's very funny. It's very funny. I don't know really know how to describe it cuz it's such a chaotically shot video, but it's - you see like an owl again, like flying around, sort of like close to the ground, and like all over the place in this video. But then you see this woman kind of like, nope out, like, she just turns and runs screaming. And the owl, and the owl gives pursuit right behind her. And it's very funny, although I imagine in the moment it would be absolutely terrifying. But like when I watch the video, I'm like, this is hilarious. She's just getting owl chased. It's really good.

Grace: As if it's not hard enough to be a college student. Poor girl.

Ben: I know. I know.

Grace: But I actually, so I have more context about her specifically. So I heard about this owl living outside of my old dorm and I did a Google, to see what else was about it. And I found this column in The Daily Tar Heel, which is the student newspaper at Chapel Hill, from a first-year who was writing in defense of this owl. He says, yeah, that it's collectively harassing all the freshmen and that it's kind of scary, but –

Ben: Is it freshman only?

Grace: Yeah, cuz it's only, it lives outside this dorm that's only freshman. So it’s like hazing them.

Ben: There's something truly delicious about that to me. I'm not sure why, but, okay. Sorry,

Grace: So, yeah, this guy, Alan Chen, who's also a first year – he lives in the dorm that's slightly up the hill, so it's also crappy, but it's a little less crappy cuz it's a little bit closer to everything. But he writes this column saying that he thinks this owl is a good thing, that it's, it's character building, that it's bringing people together.

So I was intrigued by that. So I called him up and I asked him how he originally became introduced to the owl: If it was like through these Instagram videos that were all being posted on this account UNC Chicks, which is like a meme account that's affiliated with Chicks, which is something Barstool related. And his first encounter with the owl was actually courtesy of that girl who we just saw.

Ben: Do we have a name for that girl?

Grace: Oh, we do. And sorry, that girl Kaleigh –

Ben: I don't want you to start referring to her as like, a UNC Chick.

Grace: That's true. Yeah. Cuz it turns out, even though the meme account is named UNC Chicks, bird content is an outlier. Yeah. So Alan was introduced when Kaleigh came running into his suite, because he lives with her boyfriend.

Alan Chen: She just sort of came running in frantically one day. She was like, “Alan, the weirdest thing just happened. I was chased by an owl for 30 minutes.” and I was like, “What? An owl?” And she was like, “Yeah, an owl.” So I was naturally, I was like, I wanna go see this owl, which is when I went out and, you know, tried to talk to the owl and I sort of implanted myself in the mythos of the owl. From that day on, I sort of became really fascinated by it and uh, I was reaching out to people who had owl encounters on Instagram and whatnot. 

Grace: So Alan then went to talk to lots of the people who have submitted some of these videos. Oh, I didn't even show you the video. Like there's a  video of someone giving the owl a cigarette.

Ben: What?

Grace: Yeah. I'll show it to you.

Ben: Actually giving the owl a cigarette?

[Sound from Instagram video.]

Ben: Oh my God. Don't give the owl the cigarette. No, come on. It's also like such a…

Grace: It looks so sweet there, right?

Ben: I know owls are so… God, what amazing creatures they are.

Grace: Yeah, so this owl did become kind of online famous and lots of people were talking about it in real life too. So because of all of its online fame, it became something that people were excited to like have their own spotting.

Ben: This person's shooting it like, it's like it's on a tennis court now. It's in a tennis court now. It's lit up at night by the headlights of a car, like it's in some kind of crime movie. Oh man. I'm sorry. It's just, it's truly – this owl is clearly, like, it's a mascot. It's becoming a mascot on Instagram and people clearly love this.

Grace: Yeah, exactly. And Alan told me that people would just gather and go owl watching or like, you know, call people over. Whole entire floors of this huge dorm would like come out and all like, watch the owl together.  People would bring snacks and, and it would, it gave them something to talk about. It was like a bonding experience for people, which like, when you go to a huge school, like I feel like it could be really helpful. I remember what it was like to be like one of a thousand kids in a huge dorm. It's nice to have something to talk about before basketball season. A common experience.

Ben: Yeah. Common experience where like everybody can kind of be like on the same side, you know, everybody's like, oh, check out the owl. You know, this is not like an othering experience, except maybe for the owl.

Grace: Exactly, exactly.

Ben: So here's another thing that's coming up for me that I haven't really said yet, which is like, knowing nothing about this owl, this is a piece of wildlife that's living outside in an environment that has been completely taken over by a massive university. And so like, I guess I would keep my distance, but out of respect for the animal. Like I don't really, like, I might sort of get closer to an animal so I can get a thrilling view of it. I do that, you know, like when I see – I get bobcats where I live and if I see a bobcat, I'm definitely trying to like, get a better vantage of the bobcat. I ran into a bear the other day…

Grace: Oh my gosh.

Ben: And it had its babies with it, and I was like, I noped out of there real fast. So I think I would keep my distance out of respect for the animal and out of wanting it to have its own space in the environment that we share.

Grace: I admire your respect for wildlife. I think I would probably have steered clear of it just because I would be scared. So, it turns out that Reddit loves an owl attack story. So this has been mostly confined to the UNC community, but around the same time that this was happening, there was a post on the subreddit r/wellthissucks from a woman who got attacked by an owl in her neighborhood twice. And this actually got picked up by NPR, because this Reddit post had so much attention. So you can see some pictures there of what owls can indeed do if they get ya.

Ben: Mm-hmm.

Grace: And we already talked about when I was in college, the podcast Criminal did an article about owls in Chapel Hill because of the Owl Theory about The Staircase, which was in Durham, which is like eight miles away. So, they started that episode with stories about owls swooping down onto people in Chapel Hill.

[Excerpt from CriminalSo I’m running, and I actually lowered the brim of my hat, and about 20 seconds later, I felt a scratch on my head, and my hat disappeared.]

So there is precedent for this happening. Especially in the fall, apparently, barred owls are feeling territorial, for a lot of the reasons you just said. I mean, this part of North Carolina has just developed an insane amount in the past couple of decades. So there are a lot of houses being built, which means a lot of trees are being cut down. All sorts of critters are running out of the woods. And you can't blame them, cuz wild animals are going to be wild animals, to your point earlier.

Except for this owl actually might not be totally wild.

Ben: Grace, you do have, as I understand it, a kind of conclusion to this story, about this mysterious owl. But folks will have to wait for another minute while we take a break. We'll be right back.

[Sponsor break]

Ben: All right, Grace. I'm loving this story. I need to know more about what's next.

Grace: So I'm gonna send you one last Instagram post. So this is from an account called UNC Quirks, where people submit pictures of quirky things around UNC. A student saw this woman feeding this owl a dead mouse. And the woman said that she'd raised the owl from an egg. So, it turns out this owl was perhaps not a wild owl, but a pet owl.

Ben: What?

Grace: Which just somehow makes the story all the more bizarre

Ben: What is happening?

Grace: Yeah. After this freshman named Izzy saw this encounter, the students stopped seeing the owl, at least for a while.

Ben: So wait, does that mean that she like, took the owl back? So did she take the owl home?

Grace: Unclear, like if she just rescued it. If you like to go to the next one, you can see her kind of kissing the owl.

Ben: Yeah. Well they're, they're kissing each other.

Grace: Yeah. They clearly love each other. So like, unclear. Did she take it back home or did she just like, rehabilitate it? I saw one comment on TikTok saying that the woman was, this person's, the commenter's mom. So I did reach out to that person on TikTok to be like, is this really your mom?

Ben: And?

Grace: But she did not get back to me. She didn't get back to me. Yeah. So the identity of the possible owl owner is a mystery.

Ben: What an interesting and strange tale of this mysterious owl. And it's mysterious owner and it's mysterious behavior.

Ben: Thank you Grace, for bringing this story.

Grace: Thanks for listening.

Ben: And that is where our short episode would have ended. Except that woman Grace reached out to on TikTok…hoping to talk to her mom? Well…

Grace: Yep. Monday morning, I received a text from the woman who helped raise the HoJo Owl.

Ben: Hojo MOM. And she was a HOOT.

Grace: She sure was.

Ben: Alright, Grace. What did she have to say?

Grace: Well, she started out with the important stuff.

Barb: You know, I'm not a crazy person.

Grace: Barb told me that she's been rehabbing wildlife in the Chapel Hill area for decades. She asked us not to use her last name because in North Carolina, you actually need a special license to rehab raptors. Last March, a friend from Durham, which, again, basically is the town over from Chapel Hill, called Barb about a baby owl that had fallen out of its nest.

Barb: You know, you could fit her in the palm of your hand. You know, she was just a tiny little thing.

"Owllison" as a baby. Barb rescued the baby owl after it was found in Durham, presumably having fallen out of its nest. (Courtesy of Barb.)
"Owllison" as a baby. Barb rescued the baby owl after it was found in Durham, presumably having fallen out of its nest. (Courtesy of Barb.)

Grace: Barb took the baby owl home and her son-in-law bestowed it with the name Owllison – like Allison, but you know, with an owl. And over the next few months, Barb fed Allison a steady diet of frozen mice. Her family got used to having Owllison around, and Owllison got used to them.

"Owllison" at Barb's home in Chapel Hill. (Courtesy of Barb.)
"Owllison" at Barb's home in Chapel Hill. (Courtesy of Barb.)

Barb: We would have a bonfire in the backyard at night and she would fly and she would be on the back of my chair.  And she'd just sit there and piddle with my hair, believe it or not, for over 30 minutes to an hour while we're sitting around the campfire. So she just didn't have that fear, I guess, that she needed to have. So that's the one thing I did wrong. I imprinted too much, as they say.

"Owllison" enjoying a snack at Barb's home in Chapel Hill.
"Owllison" enjoying a snack at Barb's home in Chapel Hill.

Grace: In the fall, Barb said they started seeing Owllison less and less, until finally, she'd been gone for three or four days.

Barb: I said, well, maybe this is the time, you know, maybe she's found other owls. You don't know. It's a wild animal. And then she would come home, you know, so we never went very long without seeing her. And the last time she flew off, and I hadn't seen her the whole week, and then I got a call.

Grace: The call came from someone who lives or works in a student apartment complex on South campus, and who knew about Barb's passion for wildlife. Barb realized that the owl he was calling about was probably Owllison.

Barb: I guess she just liked the people. He said she would sit on the window sill and look in at the students, you know, when they were in their rooms. And that's when I knew. Uh oh. 

Grace: Even though Barb had heard that the students really liked Owllison, she was worried that the owl might accidentally hurt someone. So she took Owllison home for the night, and then to a wildlife rescue near Pittsboro, North Carolina. She told me that she always planned to release Owllison into the wild eventually.

Barb is still able to keep tabs on her owl friend. The folks who work at the rescue will send Barb pictures of Allison from time to time.

Barb: She has hundreds of acres to fly around in. So she's doing whatever owls do.

Ben: Indeed, whatever owls do which is maybe dreaming about her checkered past of terrorizing freshman.

Grace: Maybe! Although I have to admit, after talking to Barb, I felt a little guilty about calling Owllison violent. I think she was just friendly.

Ben: She was just trying to play with people’s hair. She was just trying to hang out.

Grace: Exactly. I think she was misunderstood.

Ben: So misunderstood.

Grace: At any rate. Mystery solved. Owllison is living happily in the wild. If you want to see EVIDENCE of that happy life. You can find little baby owl photos on our website,

Ben: I was like trying to figure out how to make a joke about like, you know how owls don't poop.

Grace: I did not know that.

Ben: You didn't know that.

Grace: No wait. No, they do. Oh my God. Ben, I almost put a cut in about this owl wearing a diaper. They do poop, and I have a cut to prove it. They do!

Ben: They don't poop.

Grace: Wait, I'm gonna play the sound I have…

Ben: I hate to tell you, owls don't poop. How much would you like to bet, Grace?

Grace: I literally have tape about an owl wearing a diaper to play for you.

Ben: It doesn't, that doesn't necessarily mean the owls pooping, if the owls were in a diaper…

Grace: Uh, no. I think she talked about poop. What should we bet?

Ben: Oh, this is tough. This is, this is tough, dude. What would you like to bet?

Grace: I don't know. A sandwich. An ice cream cone.

Ben: All right, you're on.

Grace: Okay, I, well, how are we gonna prove it though? Because Barb, who seems like an owl expert to me, told me that this owl was pooping on her awning.

Ben: Are you Googling? Okay. It's a little tough.

Grace: Oh, pellets! I knew that because we've all dissected –  Did you dissect an a pellet in school?

Ben: Yes.

Grace: I think that counts as poop.

Ben: No, it doesn't, because they regurgitate them. That's not poop.

Grace: Okay. But also, why did –

Ben: If it comes outta your mouth, I'm pretty sure it's not poop. It's, we don't describe it as poop.

I'm going to the next most relevant, popular, uh, Google search, which is, do owls have buttholes? In spite of common misconceptions. Yes, owls do have butts.

Grace: Well, obviously.

Ben: Alexa answers, “Owl pellets are coughed up from the mouth because they eat food whole, so they have to emit the bones and fur.”

Grace: But like bird poop…

Ben: They still pee and poop.

Grace: Yes. Thank you. Okay. You owe me because bird poop – think about bird poop. It's just like the white, like it's like, like liquidy stuff, but…

Ben: It's kind of ice cream-like.

Grace: Gross.

Grace: Anyway, I think you lose.

Ben: I guess I lose, I guess I lose, but I'm just gonna say that I hope an owl never poops on either of us

Grace: Thanks. I hope that, too.

Ben: Or pellets on either of us. Cuz that shit's gross too.

Grace: That's also gross.

Ben: Grace, thanks for never giving up on solving owl mysteries.

Grace: Gotta keep it real for my alma mater and for Endless Thread.

Ben: See ya next week owl fans!

Grace: Bye!

Ben: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.

Grace: This episode was produced by me, Grace Tatter and co-hosted by

Ben: Me, Ben Brock Johnson. Mix and sound design by Emily Jankowski

Grace: The rest of our team is Amory Sivertson, Quincy Walters. Dean Russell, Nora Saks, Amy Gorel, Matt Reed and Paul Vaitkus. And owls do poop.

Ben: And vomit, apparently. So…we leave you with that, folks.

Grace Tatter Twitter Producer, The Great Wager
Grace Tatter is an independent journalist and audio producer.



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