Epic Snowy Owl Migration Causes Airport Woes

Snowy Owl on Haystack in Newbury, MA ~ c. Pamela J. Leavey 2013

Snowy Owl on Haystack in Newbury, MA ~ c. Pamela J. Leavey 2013

Birders are rejoicing this year as Snowy Owls flock south for the winter in epic numbers. I am about to enter into my 3rd year of amateur birding at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, where at least 9 Snowy Owls have been counted in the past week.

Indeed, local birders are in seventh heaven flocking to the Wildlife Refuge to get a look or some photos of these magnificent Snowy Owls, who will often perch and stay put for hours at a time. Because they will stay in one spot for hours, it is a treat for birders to see them spread their wings and fly off to their next perch or better yet, pluck a tasty lemming off the cold ground.

This year’s grand migration of Snowy Owls caused problems at JFK Airport “after one flew into a jet’s engine while the plane was on a tarmac at Kennedy last week,” and the “Port Authority of New York & New Jersey issued the shoot-to-kill order for the birds.”

After reports from the media on the order to shoot to kill the Snowy Owls, and some rightful outcry on the shoot to kill directive, the Port Authority walked back on their order and said they “would implement a program to trap and relocate the owls.” It is in fact not uncommon for the Port Authority to kill large wild birds over flight concerns:

More than 1,000 geese were caught and gassed near Rikers Island between 2003 and 2009 to curb the potential threat to aircraft, according to the Daily News.

A commercial jet hit a goose upon takeoff in 2009, forcing the plane to land on the Hudson River in what was referred to as the Miracle on the Hudson. That brought renewed focus on the threat of bird strikes, and about 2,000 geese were rounded up and killed that year.

Here in Massachusetts, we do things a little different at Logan International Airport in Boston. Researchers in Massachusetts work to protect the Snowy Owls from the harmful airport environ, as they trap and tag the Snowy Owls to track their migration patterns. The program in conjunction with Mass Audubon has been going on for decades.

Norman Smith, director of the Blue Hills Trailside Museum, and the Norman Smith Environmental Education Center, two facilities he manages within the Massachusetts Audubon Society, said on Monday that they have dealt with more than 20 Snowy Owls so far this season at Logan.

“It’s an exceptionally high year. There are a lot of the birds around,” he said, adding that the owls usually show up in November and stick around until April.

Smith posits that the landscape of Logan Airport (and other airports) when covered with snow look like the long spanses of flat land that remind the Snowy Owl of its natural habitat in the Arctic Tundra:

Why do they come to Logan Airport, and show up at other airports? That’s a great question that we have been looking at. But if you took away the terminals and runways, it would look a lot like the Arctic tundra. There is an adequate food supply, and they can fly up to elevations of 8,000 feet. Being a coastal location as well, they may come down the coast and they find this outcropping, and the Boston Harbor islands, and that’s the thought process for them landing here,” Smith said.

Because of the tag and track program for Snowy Owls here in Massachusetts, tagging shows that twenty-three of the seventy-three Snowy Owls reportedly struck by planes between 1990 and 2012, came from the tagging program at Logan Airport in Boston.

It should be considered reasonable and common sense to protect both the birds and the aircraft. As we’ve seen from the successful long running program in Massachusetts, these birds can provide clues to migration and be saved with a trap and release program.

Such a beautiful bird…

(AP Photo/dpa,Karl-Josef Hildenbrand)

(AP Photo/dpa,Karl-Josef Hildenbrand)

Shoot to kill is an over the top reaction to these “unique creatures.”

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