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Cy Gilbert used to have bragging rights in his family about encounters with wildlife.

The Missoula teenager came face to face with a grizzly bear and her cub in Glacier National Park two years ago, but the sow let him leave unharmed.

Now, his brother, Austin, 12, has had his own encounter with a wild critter, one much smaller than that grizzly but decidedly more aggressive.

A great horned owl attacked Austin while he and his parents, Mike and Catherine, were cross-country skiing Jan. 20 near Glacier Park.

He suffered several cuts and puncture wounds in his face, but didn't need stitches. Owls don't carry rabies or other diseases that can be transmitted to humans.

"I was scared at first, but then I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure," Austin said.

The great horned owl is one of the largest and most common owls in North America. It will take large prey, even other raptors, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

An owl also attacked another guest at the Izaak Walton Inn the night before, twice battering the man as he walked on a trail near the inn, said Mike Gilbert, Austin's father.

Kate Davis, executive director of Raptors of the Rockies, a wild bird education organization in Florence, said it's not uncommon for raptors and other birds to become aggressive in the winter when defending their nests and hatchlings.

Several skiers, hikers and others have reported being targeted by raptors in recent years in western Montana.

"During breeding and when the chicks hatch, (adult) birds can get a heightened excitement," Davis said. "And forest-dwelling owls attack silently, so you won't hear them coming."

Great horned owls can reach more than 5 pounds and have a wing span of nearly 5 feet and long talons to grip their prey.

"Austin's lucky he wasn't hurt worse," Davis said. "The owl could have hit his eyes."

The Gilberts were skiing on a lighted trail at night near the inn when the owl swooped down and sank its talons into Austin's face.

"I saw a dark shape out of the corner of my eye," he said. "Just as I looked to see what it was, it slammed into my face, knocking me to the ground."

Austin thought a tree branch had fallen on him until he realized it was moving. He yanked the bird off and held it to the ground for a moment.

"I was like, 'Oh, my gosh. It's an owl,' " he said.

When he released the bird, it lowered its ear tufts, opened its beak and stared at him with bright yellow eyes for several seconds before flying away.

Mike Gilbert, who was about 100 feet behind his son, said he initially thought Austin was joking when he fell and started yelling in a darkened section of the trail.

"But when we got up close, we saw all the blood," Gilbert said.

An inn staffer with first-aid training and two doctors staying at the inn treated Austin's wounds.

Austin, who's a bird lover, and his parents on Sunday visited Davis' ranch, where she keeps owls, eagles and other raptors. He wanted to learn more about owls.

At the ranch, Austin identified a great horned owl as the species that attacked him. He stepped calmly into the bird's enclosure for a close-up look.

"He was so brave," Davis said. "The owl was flying all around and he wasn't scared a bit."

Austin told his friends about the owl attack. Some believed him. Some think he crashed into a tree while skiing.

He said he doesn't hold a grudge against the owl, which he knows was just doing what comes naturally.

He wants to return to the ski slopes. And he hasn't changed his career plans.

He still wants to grow up to be an ornithologist.

Reporter John Cramer can be reached at 523-5259 or at johncramer@missoulian.com.

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