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.