An ‘Exceptionally High’ Number of Snowy Owls Are Flocking To The Logan Airport Tarmac

In New York, authorities are ordered to kill them. But in Boston, they’re captured and studied.

Snowy Owl Photo By Associated Press

Snowy Owl Photo By Associated Press

UPDATE, December 11 : After public outcry, and some pushback from environmental and animal-rights groups, New York’s Port Authority said they will no longer shoot owls that land on the airfields, and instead will take a cue from Boston, and capture the birds.

According to a statement from officials in New York:

The Port Authority is working with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to move immediately toward implementing a program to trap and relocate snowy owls that pose a threat to aircraft at JFK and LaGuardia Airports. The Port Authority’s goal is to strike a balance in humanely controlling bird populations at and around the agency’s airports to safeguard passengers on thousands of aircrafts each day.

EARLIER: Another day, another reason to favor Boston over New York City: While the port authority in the latter location is allegedly sniping white owls that land on the airport’s tarmac, researchers from Massachusetts are saving them from the dangerous environment, and tagging the birds to track their migratory patterns.

According to an NBC news report, Snowy Owls have been listed as a threat at John F. Kennedy Airport, and authorities have been ordered to take down the white birds with lethal force, to prevent them from getting sucked into the engine of an airplane.

According to the report, two were shot on Saturday:

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey issued the shoot-to-kill order for the birds after one flew into a jet’s engine while the plane was on a tarmac at Kennedy last week, the source said.

Meanwhile, in Boston, researchers have a different approach to the problem, which has been ongoing 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 said he has been tagging the birds since the early 1980s as part of a relationship formed between the Audubon Society and airport officials. “Some winters we have had as few as one owl, and the most we ever captured in one year was 43 at Logan in the 1980s,” he said.

In total, since they started working with the airport, they have captured 500 birds. But this year Smith has seen a sharp spike in the amount of captures they have made.

Matthew Brelis, director of media relations at the Massachusetts Port Authority, the agency that oversees operations at Logan, said they have a [United States Department of Agriculture] Wildlife Biologist on staff to help keep the birds out of harm’s way, who is aided by Smith and often other volunteers from the Audubon society.

“They trap, tag, and release owls,” said Brelis. “We have been working with the Audubon society and our biologist on staff to help with the wildlife management issue for years.”

Luckily, he said, the birds haven’t been responsible for delaying flights. Brelis said often times, after being tagged by professionals, the birds return to Logan the following year. In some instances they have attached GPS devices to the birds to monitor their habits, but due to the expensive cost to do so, they don’t tag every one.

Smith said the birds are coming from the Arctic Circle and become acquainted with the Logan landscape because when it snows, the long stretches of flat land surrounding the tarmac are reminiscent of the birds’ home turf.

“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.

Smith and other workers at the airport work swiftly to trap the birds in cages—rather than the New York approach to kill off the birds—and release them back into the wild, so they can avoid plane-related problems.

In January, the Globe reported that “between 1990 and 2012, 73 snowy owls have been struck by airplanes nationwide,” according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Twenty-three of those birds came from Logan, the report said. Other types of birds have been responsible for plane-related accidents in New York in the past, according to the report, which may be an indication as to why the owls are on the authorities’ shoot-to-kill list.

Although researchers are apt to learn more about the Snowy Owls and their migration patterns, they also want to ensure the safety of passengers, Smith told Boston—something he wishes New York would consider, too.

“I think that—I have been involved with what Boston is doing for many years—aircraft safety is obviously important, but these are unique creatures as well, and if you can remove the owl, and bring it somewhere safe, that’s a win-win, as opposed to going out there and shooting the owl,” he said.

  • SuperWittySmitty

    Another reason to prefer Boston? LOL! Listen, Boston is an adorable town, and youse guys got some decent ball clubs (except that ’86 Red Sox team our Mets beat.) But when bright and intelligent young people contemplate moving to the big city to make their name known, Old Bean Town is hardly their first choice.

    • 7worldtraveler

      You are obviously an uneducated New Yorker. So sad for you.

      • SuperWittySmitty

        I remember when my colleagues showed me “downtown Boston.” It was no more than six blocks long. So cute!

        • NE-PNW VoorTrekker

          Now that is a metric of superiority. Number of blocks of Downtown. Only NYC elitist types come on a Boston area news source and reveal their insecurity to a city that is ~13.5x smaller. I understand though, they punch way above their weight and Boston is a far superior place to live.

          • SuperWittySmitty

            Our women are certainly superior, and Brooklyn Lager beats Sam Adams in almost every taste test. I give youse credit for trying, though.

          • NE-PNW VoorTrekker

            Nobody drinks Brooklyn Lager. It’s like Michelob Dark. I live in the PNW now and Sammy is one of the few Northeast brands well-respected out here, and the PNW knows beer better than anyone this side of the Atlantic. Brooklyn Lager, my God. You prefer women? Because you sound like a little bitch. I’m glad your city of 8,300,000 has been able to concentrate a few more attractive women into Manhattan, where they will spend their two year tour then move on to whatever other reasonable city they decide to settle down in. Keep on gawkin’.

          • SuperWittySmitty

            You should read up on these beers at beeradvocate. I know enough about beer to know quality when taste it. As far as I can tell, the beers from the PNW have excessive amounts of hops.

          • NE-PNW VoorTrekker

            I did- I posted the two critic ratings above. That is the typical PNW style but every brewery out here has this style (high ABV, high IBU) plus things more in line with traditional DE, UK, BE, etc. recipes.

          • SuperWittySmitty

            I see Brooklyn Lager ranked at 85%, and it sells for 8.99, which makes it a popular choice around here. It’s a big seller at Citifield, too. Occasionally will buy 6-pack of Sam Adams but always notice it doesn’t satisy the same way. They probably use poor quality water or something.

          • 7worldtraveler

            Coming from a drag queen—what a compliment!

          • SuperWittySmitty

            Go ahead, if you can’t make a decent contribution to the discussion, insult someone. Tactics like this will ensure you are always going to be a loser.

          • 7worldtraveler

            Oh, but you can insult with impunity!

            Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.

          • SuperWittySmitty

            Continuing with the longstanding and traditional rivalry btwn the cities is what I’m doing. Personal insults are what you are doing, a whole new dimension to the conversation. Obviously, you are hoping, from my avatar, that I’m a drag queen. Sorry to disappoint you, I’m a straight arrow.

    • 7worldtraveler
    • NE-PNW VoorTrekker

      Another NYC elitist bonehead. Yes, everyone moves there and 1-2 years later are long gone due to how unlivable it is. 23% at or below the poverty line with the rest being millionaires. Also, if you chose careers in healthcare/medicine, biotechnology/biomedical research, high technology, education, and even finance, there is absolutely no reason to look South for work, especially when a 10% raise will come with a 50% increase in cost of living.

      • SuperWittySmitty

        No, our population is hilding steady. The elderly and the ones that can’t make it move elsewhere, possibly to second-rate cities where they might have a fighting chance. But NYC is still the powerhouse of the northeast. You folks get an A for effort!

        • NE-PNW VoorTrekker

          Powerhouse of what? DB fashion industry types? Wall Street bankers? Giant social handouts for the broke well fare crowd? Hipsters that hang out in cafes with their iPads? Angry fans of eleven losing sports teams? Your population is only growing amongst the poor who immigrate there and stay put for all of the freebies. The middle and working class of Queens and Staten Island is drying up. The tech. industry sucks and the biotech./pharma. industry are now third rate.

  • jimlevine

    The author above states “Other types of birds have been responsible for plane-related accidents
    in New York in the past, according to the report, which may be an
    indication as to why the owls are on the authorities’ shoot-to-kill
    list.” Have you seen the actual take permit? Are snowy owls on it? Take permits are issued by the Migratory Bird office in Hadley, MA. I’m sure they’d provide it if asked.

  • JD


  • NE-PNW VoorTrekker

    I believe large airports like JFK had a falconry expert onsite during the day who was used a raptor to chase seabirds and waterfowl from the airport. These guys cost only $60,000/y per airport, but the funding I believe was cut. I wonder if this would have saved that multi-million dollar jetliner from landing in the Hudson. Not sure how a raptor would interact with other raptors though. JFK should try the BOS trap method; I’m sure someone in the tri-state are would “take the owls under their wing”.

  • NE-PNW VoorTrekker

    When these owls get a surplus of rodent food in the Arctic they multiply like crazy. Then as adults they fly as far South as possible to get food in the winter. Sometimes they arrive starving. In the PNW they have set up winter camp as far South as Central OR Coast (last year). Also, same season, one presumably made it out of the Aleutian Islands in AK and landed at Honolulu International Airport HI where it was shot by USDA Wildlife. 🙁

  • NE-PNW VoorTrekker

    From NYDailyNews:

    “Whooo’s humane: New York City airports to end owl slaughter

    A day after the Daily News revealed that the Port Authority had put the adorable snowy owl on its kill list, the agency announced a change of heart. It will now ‘move immediately toward implementing a program to trap and relocate snowy owls that pose a threat to aircraft at’ city airports.”