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Finding lessons in owl’s long flight

GPS helps Logan learn habits, prevent bird strikes

To a snowy owl, the desolate landscape of Logan Airport looks like home, which is why the bird returned after summering in Canada. Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It was a direct round-trip flight plan: no layovers, no re-routes, just one 7,000-mile round trip between Logan International Airport and the Arctic Circle.

A snowy owl residing at Logan and outfitted with a GPS transmitter is being hailed as a loyal airport patron after it flew north for the summer, pit-stopped at the uppermost reaches of Canada, then beelined back to Logan.

Both biologists and airport officials were able to track that improbable flight path, thanks to a partnership between Logan Airport and the Massachusetts Audubon Society aimed at shedding light on avian migration patterns.

Owl enthusiasts, of course, want to learn more about the owls’ lifestyle. And airport officials hope more detailed information about avian wildlife will help them avoid catastrophic bird strikes.


“A host of experts at Logan implement an aggressive, comprehensive, and also compassionate wildlife program to reduce the likelihood of a bird strike,” said Todd C. Smith, director of aviation operations at Logan Airport.

The threat that birds may collide with airplanes is no joking matter. In 1960, 62 people were killed when Eastern Air Lines Flight 375 crashed into Winthrop Bay after the aircraft engines ingested several starlings. Bird strikes made headlines again in 2009 when a run-in with a flock of Canada Geese caused US Airways Flight 1549 to ditch onto New York’s Hudson River.

It is a nightmare outcome for Jeffrey Turner, a certified airport wildlife biologist with the United States Department of Agriculture, stationed at Logan.

The Hudson landing, he said, “struck fear into all airline pilots that they need to become more aware of the birds.”

Logan, it turns out, is more popular than any other airport in the region for the winged creatures, especially the white, speckled snowy owls. Between 1990 and 2012, 73 snowy owls have been struck by airplanes nationwide, according to Federal Aviation Administration and Logan records. Twenty-three of those came from Logan.


From the terminal windows, Logan may seem more concrete jungle than avian oasis, but the airport’s 1,700 acres of airfield, mostly grassy plains abutting the harbor, makes it an attractive home for birds large and small.

It is a landscape especially familiar to snowy birds, who spend much of the year in the dry, chilly Arctic, said Norman Smith, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society Blue Hills Trailside Museum, an owl enthusiast who has trapped and released hundreds of Logan Airport birds.

“If you took away the runways, the terminals, the buildings, the lights, the antennas — this is what the Arctic tundra would look like,” said Smith, gazing out at the airfield on a clear, sunny afternoon.

Wildlife technicians at Logan employ a range of methods to diminish the risk of a bird strike, including sound canons and sirens to shoo away owls or geese that wander too close to an active runway.

But increasingly, they are turning to more nuanced tactics: Special endophytic grass, laced with a bacteria that causes indigestion, deters the birds. The landscape is reworked to prevent puddling, which attracts all manner of wildlife.

Between 1990 and 2012, 73 snowy owls have been struck by airplanes nationwide, according to Federal Aviation Administration and Logan records. Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In the hopes of learning more about what drives the birds to Logan, the airport and the Massachusetts Audubon Society have worked to outfit some of the snowy owls with GPS transmitters, like the one attached to the snowy owl that returned to Logan this past fall.


The female bird, born in the summer of 2011, was captured at the airport last February, tagged, and strapped with a ­tiny GPS backpack, about the size of a pack of gum, that costs about $3,000 and was paid for by the Nuttall Ornithological Club.

After she was released at Plum Island, the bird flew to Logan Airport before lighting out for Canada, emitting a GPS signal every three days along the journey.

“When that bird decided it was going to the Arctic,” Smith said, “it took off and really boogied.”

Typically, snowy owls will spend the summer in the arctic, then head to new regions or are waylaid by the Saint Lawrence Seaway, close to Montreal. If they return to their starting point, it’s usually years later.

But after taking a summer hiatus west of balmy Baffin Island, the bird hustled back to Massachusetts. On November 24, GPS confirmed that the owl had returned.

Currently, it hops back and forth between the airport and Castle Island.

Norman Smith of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the snowy owl who was tracked over the 7,000-mile journey. Shawn P. Carey/Migration Productions

In some ways, it is unfortunate that the owl returned to Logan — after all, the goal of the wildlife management program is to deter the birds. But the snowy owls help keep smaller, more problematic birds at bay. And data from this bird’s travels may shed new light on migratory patterns that could help airport staff better anticipate avian habits.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Smith said. “We want the birds to stay away. But it’s kind of interesting to see the journey this bird has taken, and you wonder why it came back.”


Watching the owls perch under a setting sun, Smith and Turner cannot help but give off the feeling that a little part of them likes having the owls around.

“The eyes — they’re so yellow. It’s gorgeous when you seem them up close,” Turner said, peering through his binoculars. “The bird’s just looking at you, and it’s staring at you so intensely, and the eyes are just glowing bright — the brightest yellow. It’s amazing.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.