Call it the year of the snowy owl.
In just the past month, the powdery white Arctic creatures have been spotted much farther afield than their usual habitats, with bird-watchers in the Northeast reporting the most snowy owl sightings in recent memory.
So it comes as no surprise that record numbers of the birds have arrived at Northeast airports, snowy owls’ preferred proxy for the Arctic tundra. And as aviation officials grapple with the risks posed by the owls, New York’s airports are now taking a cue from Logan International Airport and catching and releasing the birds, rather than shooting them.
New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport made headlines on Sunday when it was revealed that officials had ordered staff to shoot snowy owls on sight after five of the birds flew into airplanes at New York-area airports in the past two weeks.
The news was met with shock, dismay, and consternation from animal activists, especially New York’s chapters of the Audubon Society, which wrote a letter to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey requesting a change in policy.
“While we understand that due to their large size these birds may pose a threat to air safety,” wrote the Audubon chapters of New York and New York City, “other airports including Boston’s Logan Airport have utilized non-lethal control techniques such as trapping to manage the larger than normal occurrence of snowy owls.”
The outcry seemed to do the trick. On Monday night, Port Authority officials said they had forged an agreement with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation that would allow them to catch and release the owls, rather than exterminate them.
“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,” the agency said in a statement.
Some were still miffed at the kill order — an animal-rights group called Friends of Animals said Tuesday that it planned to file a lawsuit against the Port Authority for shooting three of the birds — but in Boston, aviation officials said they were glad to see that others were following in the more compassionate and eco-friendly footsteps of Logan .
Norman Smith, director of the Mass Audubon Society Blue Hills Trailside Museum and an owl expert who captures and releases most of the owls that arrive at Logan, said he knows the significant risk presented by birds. Most famously, a US Airways airplane was forced to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2009 after colliding with a flock of geese, some of which were sucked into the plane’s engines.
“I certainly understand that,” Smith said. “But on the other hand, if there is an alternative method that is proven to work pretty well, why not trap them and relocate them?”
Smith and Logan Airport officials said that they, too, have noticed the influx of snowy owls, but they say they are well-equipped to handle it.
“It’s kept us very busy over the past couple of weeks,” said Todd C. Smith, director of aviation operations at Logan, who said he was surprised to hear that the New York airports did not previously have a policy that prioritized relocating the creatures. “We don’t think it’s anything out of control.”
Though specialists at Logan have caught and released more than 500 snowy owls since relocation efforts began decades ago, they also employ other methods to deter the birds from the airport. Sound cannons have been installed at the birds’ preferred resting spots, and staff sometimes fire pistols with blanks to shoo them away. The grassy fields are landscaped to reduce puddles that attract smaller birds and rodents, and the grass is laced with a bacteria that causes indigestion in birds.
‘It’s kept us very busy over the past couple of weeks.’
The snowy owls that are trapped and released are outfitted with GPS devices that allow researchers to track their flight path, providing important details about their travel patterns and helping airport officials better anticipate where and when the birds will arrive.
It’s important work at airports, where ill-timed bird appearances can end with tragic results. In 1960, an aircraft that took off from Logan crashed into Winthrop Bay after the engines ingested a set of starlings, killing 62 people.
At Logan, shooting birds is an absolute last resort and usually that measure is reserved for geese, or other flocking birds that tend to present more of a threat than the solitary snowy owl.
In the past, the biggest snowy owl year yielded 43 captures at Logan in the winter. So far, 21 of the birds have been trapped — and snowy owl season is just beginning.
“It’s a really good year for snowy owls, probably much better than any I can remember,” said Smith, the Mass Audubon owl expert.
Scientists and owl enthusiasts aren’t quite sure why.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” said Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist who has spent 25 years at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. “There’s no clear signal yet.”
McGowan said the increased number of sightings could be a signal of something very good — plentiful food leading to the birth of more of the birds than ever before — or something very bad, such as climate change curtailing the food supply and forcing more owls to venture south to survive.
But, he continued, one thing is certain: It’s a great time to be a snowy owl enthusiast.
“They’re like Eskimo teddy bears. And then there’s the whole Harry Potter thing, so they’re familiar to people,” McGowan said. “They’re charismatic, so when people start knocking them off at airports, we notice.”Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.