Did an Owl Really Do It? Exploring the Strangest Theory to Come Out of 'The Staircase'

Can an owl really kill a person?

As the latest installments of the docu-series "The Staircase" hit Netflix this month, true crime aficionados have again floated the theory that an owl may have caused the death of Kathleen Peterson.

The theory has long been considered one of the crazier theories to come out of the case, which saw the arrest of the North Carolina woman’s husband, Michael Peterson, in her death. 

But many believe Kathleen’s 2001 death at the bottom of a staircase in her Durham home may have actually been caused by an encounter with the bird of prey.

Attorney T. Lawrence Pollard, Michael Peterson’s neighbor and a member of his defense team, first posited in a 2009 motion for appropriate relief that a barred owl may have caused Kathleen’s death.

He suggested the large bird swooped down onto Kathleen and became entangled in her hair, ripping out part of her scalp in the scuffle. 

Kathleen was able to get away from the owl, and perhaps went inside to tend to her wounds, but may have become disoriented and fell down the stairs before alerting someone to the attack, Pollard wrote.

"Barred owls are territorial; they have been known to harass people [for] getting too close to their nest site," wildlife expert Brian Robinson told InsideEdition.com.

Robinson has worked with birds of prey, including barred owls, for 25 years, and though he has never heard of one causing a death, the theory as detailed by Pollard is not completely outside the realm of possibility.

“Those owls kind of dive-bomb at people’s heads," he said. “It’s a defensive tactic; they’re defending their territory. Usually it’s a fly-by attack, they come across and they rake somebody across their head. Is it possible that its feet got entangled in her hair? I suppose that’s possible."

Owls are zygodactyls, meaning they have two toes projecting forward and two projecting backward, which Pollard said was in line with the injuries Kathleen Peterson sustained.

“Mrs. Peterson may have been the victim of an attack... which caused puncture wounds to her elbows, injuries on her face and around her eyes, and lacerations to her scalp,” Pollard wrote.

Kathleen Peterson was also found clutching strands of her bloodied hair, which had feathers attached to it, Pollard said. 

"The theory was dismissed at the time on the basis that owls do not attack human beings and that the theory lacked credibility," he continued. 

But Pollard said new evidence arose showing owls have attacked humans and can inflict the injuries Kathleen Peterson suffered.

"On January 10, 2008, two men were attacked in Apex, North Carolina (approximately 10 miles from the Peterson residence) by an owl, and the attack was recorded on video by a security surveillance camera," Pollard wrote. "It clearly shows the suddenness and ferocity of such an attack. A second attack on the same men at the same location occurred 10 days later, and again, the bird responsible was an owl, and the injuries were recorded."

But Robinson noted birds of prey such as the barred owl would not attack a person for no reason.

"Most people they see an owl or any bird, but particularly owls, they think they’re 10 pounds," Robinson said. “Barred owls probably look, to a lot of people, like a huge bird. They’re really small underneath all those feathers; the average barred owl is probably two pounds."

Birds know to avoid conflicts with anything bigger than themselves, and that includes humans, he added.

“A person is much bigger and much stronger than a barred owl,” Robinson said. “Most of these birds don’t want to get into a conflict like that because they’re the ones who will get hurt usually."

Barred owls are known to become territorial around their nesting season, which usually begins late December or early January, but it is possible Kathleen Peterson’s encountered birds on an earlier schedule when she died on Dec. 9.

“Not every pair of owls does the exact same thing,” Robinson said. “If that’s their territory and they’re on that land and in breeding mode, I could see that [an attack] is a possibility.”

Peterson was initially convicted of killing his wife, but was granted a new trial in December 2011 on appeal. He was freed in 2017 after taking an Alford plea to manslaughter, maintaining his innocence while agreeing the prosecution had enough evidence to convict him.