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Rescuing Snowy Owls from airport runways

Snowy Owls
A Snowy Owl perches on a runway light at an airport in Ontario. Photo by Chris Seager/Shutterstock

Every birder knows how special Snowy Owls are. If you haven’t seen one of the big, white, cold-hardy birds, then they’re likely high on your must-see list. Whether or not you’ve spotted Snowies, it’s a safe bet that you wouldn’t want harm to come to the birds. More so than most bird species, Snowies inspire great interest and passion among birders and nonbirders alike.

In winter, when Snowies migrate south into southern Canada and northern parts of the lower 48 states, they look for habitats similar to the arctic tundra where they breed, meaning they turn up in wide-open fields and along shorelines. Unfortunately, the fields around airport runways are quite attractive to the owls. When Snowies arrive, they pose aviation hazards, and planes certainly threaten owls when flight paths cross.

According to a database of wildlife strikes maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration, in the U.S. and Canada, at least 321 Snowy Owls have been killed in strikes with airplanes since 1991. Wildlife strikes overall have increased in recent years, and the same is true with Snowies; more than three times as many owls have been hit in the last decade than in the previous two decades.

The airports with the highest counts of strikes on Snowies are Boston’s Logan (69), New York’s John F. Kennedy International (40), Chicago’s O’Hare (39), and Detroit’s Metro Airport (32). Most incidents don’t threaten airplane passengers and crew, but an FAA report about significant wildlife strikes to civil aircraft shows three involving Snowies since 1990. In two of them, birds were hit during take-off, forcing the pilots to abort going airborne, and in the other case, an owl was ingested into an engine shortly after take-off from Chicago’s Midway Airport, and the flight was diverted to land at O’Hare.

Norman Smith, who removes Snowy Owls from Logan Airport in Boston, receives “assistance” from his granddaughters before releasing an owl away from the airport. The bird had been fitted with a tracking device. Photo courtesy Norman Smith

Moving owls out of the way

The good news is that some people have worked for many years to remove owls from the dangers of being in close proximity to fast-moving planes.

Norman Smith, who recently retired as sanctuary director for Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton, Massachusetts, has been rescuing Snowy Owls from Boston’s Logan Airport since 1981. Despite retiring from his day job, he’ll continue his work with the owls.

He has captured and relocated more than 750 Snowies over nearly four decades. Most winters, he rescues 10 to 12 owls; his high count was 121 birds during the irruption of 2013-2014. (An irruption is when an abnormally large number of animals migrate into an area or region where they normally aren’t found.) Logan, he says, attracts the “largest concentration of Snowy Owls that we know of in the Northeast.”

Big winter for Snowy Owls unlikely, expert says

Airport officials contact Smith when an owl is located, “but I also go out there on a regular basis just to check,” he says. Sometimes he finds birds that airport staff haven’t noticed. He traps birds “just as the sun’s going down or just before the sun comes up in the morning because that’s when the birds are most likely in a hunting mode.” He releases the birds at sites 20 to 50 miles away from the airport.

The work is a labor of love for Smith, who volunteers his time and expertise to rescue Snowies and, occasionally, other large owls or raptors. “Logan has been very responsive and very receptive to allow me to get out there and to get special security clearances and permits to actually do this work,” he notes.

After the 2013-2014 irruption, Smith wrote a protocol about trapping and removing Snowies from airports that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division adopted. At many airports, Wildlife Services is responsible for controlling and removing wildlife. Previously, when the birds could not be scared away from runways with pyrotechnics, they may have been trapped and relocated, or officials may have shot them to prevent accidents with airplanes. (Airports conduct the work under permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Smith says that a number of airports in the U.S. and Canada work to relocate owls just as he does at Logan.

“Wildlife staff at airports had already been trapping and relocating raptors prior to [the irruption in 2013-2014], but the efforts and data that Norm had recorded over several years helped highlight the trap and relocation efforts of Snowy Owls as a tool for mitigating their hazards,” says Justin Willey, a Wildlife Services biologist at Logan.

Frank Ujazdowski of Project SOAR rescues a Snowy Owl at Green Bay’s Austin Straubel International Airport. Photo courtesy Austin Straubel International Airport

Project SOAR

Larger airports tend to get the most attention, but Snowy Owls are just as likely to show up at small regional airports. That’s just what happened in November 2017 when an owl wouldn’t leave the vicinity of a runway in eastern Wisconsin. Airport workers tried to scare it away but eventually shot the bird. The story made local headlines, leading to negative press for the airport; its officials even received death threats.

Janet Wissink, president of the Winnebago Audubon Society, decided to try to prevent future owl shootings. She and Erin Giese, president of the Northeastern Wisconsin Audubon Society, soon teamed up with Frank Ujazdowski, a local licensed falconer with an interest in Snowies.

They convinced the airport to let Ujazdowski trap and relocate Snowies near runways. The trio soon formed Project SOAR (Snowy Owl Airport Rescue) and now work with three airports in the Badger State. In their first two winters, they have rescued 15 Snowies as well as a few Great
Horned Owls and other raptors.

They’re hoping to work with more airports and to sign up more falconers to rescue birds. Project SOAR appears to be the only group in North America that removes Snowy Owls at small airports. That’s not too surprising considering the work involved. Like Smith in Massachusetts, Ujazdowski, Wissink, and Giese are volunteers. They’re tackling the problem because, as Ujazdowski says, “We all love birds and want to take great care of them, especially birds of prey.”

And, he says, the feeling isn’t limited to birders and falconers. After telling the story of Project SOAR at an aviation conference, he says an airport manager told him, “We don’t want to shoot these birds. Can you help?”

Special birds, indeed.

Learn more

The work to remove owls and other raptors from airports is often done by volunteers. To learn more about their efforts and to make donations to support them, visit the following websites:

Blue Hills Trailside Museum

Project SOAR

This article was first published in the January/February 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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