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A snowy owl at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, in Galloway Township, N.J.

A snowy owl hangs out in New Jersey's Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge this week.

Photograph by Vernon Ogrodnek, The Press of Atlantic City/AP    

Jennifer S. Holland

for National Geographic

Published December 12, 2013

Despite their renowned wisdom, snowy owls migrating south are mistaking airport runways for safe habitat, putting themselves, and air travelers, at risk.

Right now, perhaps the largest ever number of Arctic snowy owls—yes, the type beloved by Harry Potter and friends—are descending on the Northeast and Great Lakes states in one of what may be several waves of arrivals. (Such an influx is called an "irruption," just for the record.)

It's hard to get trustworthy counts because of how scattered the birds are now and how extensive their range is, stretching from Newfoundland to Bermuda. But the numbers appear to be unprecedented, and bird experts aren't exactly sure why. (See a map of snowy owl sightings here.)

Bumpy Landing

The problem, said Kevin McGowan, a biologist and ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is that airports, with their big open plots of land, invite the birds to make themselves at home. Airports like John F. Kennedy (JFK), Newark, and LaGuardia recall the expansive Arctic tundra where the owls live much of the year before most fly south for the winter, to the U.S. and the Caribbean.

And birds and planes don't mix well. Bird strikes, the term used when birds and planes collide or when birds are sucked into plane engines, are extremely dangerous and cause anywhere from $300 million to $700 million a year in damage to civilian and military aircraft, depending on whom you ask.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which keeps a database of these incidents, recorded over 120,000 wildlife strikes (the vast majority were birds) in a 10-year period, and experts say strikes are seriously underreported.

Lives at Risk

While most hits are much harder on the birds than on the planes (most don't even register as turbulence), some have caused planes to go down, including the famous U.S. Airways splashdown into the Hudson River in 2009.

While that forced landing didn't kill anyone, there have been some 250 human deaths attributed to planes hitting birds in the last couple of decades. It's not a high number relative to overall plane crash-related deaths, but it remains a major worry, especially in a year of avian excess. (Related: "Bloody Skies: The Fight to Reduce Deadly Bird-Plane Collisions.")

Snowy owls, which don't flock like many other birds, aren't usually a big bird-strike contender; gulls, pigeons, and doves are more typically involved.

"But this is a relatively big bird, sometimes eight pounds [about four kilograms], and that's considerable if you hit it while traveling 300 miles [483 kilometers] per hour," McGowan said.

Failure to Launch

Keeping owls off airport grounds has proved nearly impossible; officials at JFK finally resorted to shooting a couple—and were scolded harshly by the public for their actions. But it's a tough situation.

"Snowy owls don't scare easily," McGowan said, so the usual methods for chasing birds off of runways—blasting explosive noisemakers into the sky, for example—aren't effective. "If you harass them long enough, driving trucks right up to them, sometimes they'll leave," he said.

But the best approach so far has been trapping and moving birds, as is done regularly at Logan Airport in Boston.

"You can get a high payoff by releasing a bird 100 miles [161 kilometers] from the airport—we know from banding them that they don't return," said McGowan. But that requires people willing to handle these big-footed, strong raptors, and the sign-up list hasn't exactly filled up.

"Truly Awesome Animals"

Why are there so many of these birds this year? A shortage of lemmings, the birds' main food source in their northern habitat, or perhaps a bumper crop of young owls seeking their own space could be pushing the birds to fly south in high numbers, McGowan explained.

Of course, those two scenarios suggest very different things: "Either not enough food in the wild, or plenty of it. It's hard to know whether there's a problem or not."

Regardless, snowy owls, with their impressive wingspan, golden eyes, and big round fluffy bodies, are a favorite of bird-watchers (find out if these birds are in your area), and having a lot of them around makes a lot of people happy.

"While you're wondering whether or not to be concerned for the owls, go out and see them," McGowan said.

"They're this beautiful thing that breeds only way, way up north, like a creature from another world, not something you see every day. They're truly awesome animals."

Follow Jennifer S. Holland on Twitter.

11 comments
John Beck
John Beck

I've got a brilliant idea - how about the fact that the snowy owls migrated south because the arctic air/polar vortex was going to swing down in an unprecedented manner across the United States and shatter temperature records? How about we knock off all the "shortage of lemmings" and "they made so many babies" theories and get some common sense? The Farmer's Almanac is smarter than you guys.

J.a. Jackson
J.a. Jackson

These numbers most likely indicate a very successful breeding season in the high arctic. The airport officials who shot the two owls should have consulted someone knowledgeable about these majestic birds first. Not being afraid of humans they [snowy owls] could have been easily trapped and relocated.  

Robin Alha
Robin Alha

I can't believe they shot the owls at JFK. That's terrible. If they couldn't find anyone to come and trap the birds and move them elsewhere, they really didn't look very hard.

Mark Gelig
Mark Gelig

this is just an excuse. birds exist already before airplanes and airports are invented, they should find a way around this, and please dont blame the birds. they're just being "birds". 

Michael Cetaruk
Michael Cetaruk

This is poorly written suggested that owls are "mistaken" . . the owls see appropriate habitat in their range and try to make a living there going after small rodents or small birds.


It was geese that struck the flight that landed in the hudson - not a Snowy Owl.


The "mistake" here is that airport admininstrators believe they have absolute dominion over all spaces and creatures, else they are justified to kill them off.

John Whitby
John Whitby

If the airport owners would care to fly me over from the UK and provide an RV for me to live in whilst there, I'll happily come over to trap and move these beautiful birds to safer areas ... could probably arrange to bring a whole crew of natural history photographers from Falmouth University with me to help!!

John Zoin
John Zoin

Owl sandwiches???  Why not??

Glen Mulley
Glen Mulley

Another reason there are many owls returning to the area is that the long term effects of the spraying of DDT in the 1950s might be finally wearing off. Raptors have returned to Canada and I am glad they have. Deal with it.

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