By Christine Harris
Many birders dream of seeing the elusive snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). So far the winter of 2013 has made that dream a reality for countless avian enthusiasts. The snowy owl typically inhabits the Arctic and Northern Canada, yet this winter there have been dozens of reports of sitings from across the contiguous United States, even as far south as Louisville, Kentucky.
According to Marshall Iliff, one of the project coordinators for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Ebird website, when populations of rodents such as lemmings are high, snowy owls experience high breeding success. If those rodent populations crash thereafter, overcrowded owls surge southward in search of food, with younger birds typically moving farther. These snowy owl “incursions” or “invasions” generally occur at least once a decade. This year’s invasion is taking place primarily in Eastern North America, suggesting that the Eastern Arctic was a productive breeding ground for the birds this past summer, and that they are spreading out to find food.
When seeking suitable habitat and feeding grounds away from their Arctic homeland, snowy owls look for places reminiscent of the tundra: large, open areas with few trees to block their view of rodents scampering on the ground. Many owls choose open coastal beaches and dunes, while those searching for feeding grounds further inland often settle for airports. Historically, owls that have chosen to spend time at airports have met with mixed fates.
Birds found at airports are often viewed as a threat to safe aviation. Remember the flock of geese that led to the “miracle on the Hudson?” In 1960 a plane that departed from Logan Airport in Boston crashed shortly thereafter due to a flock of starlings that were sucked up by the planes engines, killing 62 people. There is no doubt that the threat to aviation posed by birds at airports is real, and different airports employ different methods for deterring birds from spending time on their runways–including frightening or killing them. Over the years many snowy owls have been shot at airports; in fact, the only snowy owl to ever disperse to Hawaii was shot at the Honolulu Airport in 2012.
This winter the practice of shooting snowy owls at airports was brought to the attention of the general public when three were shot at New York’s JFK Airport. Boston’s Logan International Airport has snowy owls visit almost every winter and has had a catch and release program in place for decades. As of December 11, Norman Smith, director of Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum, has captured and released 21 snowy owls at Logan Airport and it’s still early in the season. The most captured in one year to date is 43, but this year could prove to be a record breaker. Since the beginning of the program over 500 snowy owls have been safely removed from the runways at Logan.
When news broke of the killings at JFK, many asked why New York City did not institute a snowy owl program similar to Boston’s. Public outrage over the incident led to the New York Port Authority’s decision to work with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation on establishing a catch and release program for New York City airports. Hopefully New York’s program will meet with the same level of success as that of Boston and future generations of airport-bound snowy owls will be given a second chance.