Homesick Owls Confusing Airports With Arctic Tundra

A record number of migrating snowy owls are causing trouble at U.S. airports.

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

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."

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