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Shooting Snowy Owls at airports

Posted on Dec 11, 2013

By now you have probably heard about this story but at 2:25AM on Monday, December 9 the New York Daily News posted an article detailing Port Authority ‘wildlife specialists’ that were now shooting and killing Snowy Owls at the New York City metro airports. Snowy Owls are currently in the middle of a massive irruption with sightings all over the Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast regions, a movement we thought could be coming even before it started in earnest.

Snowy Owl-3494

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) by Twan Leenders

A Port Authority source told the NYDN that three Snowy Owls had already been killed with shotguns at JFK. They were added to the kill list, the list of species the airports actively shoot in order to prevent bird strikes, after one sitting on a taxiway sign was sucked into a jet engine.

The NYDN continues:

“These are beautiful birds that I or anyone else I know who has worked at JFK have never heard pose a problem,” the source said. “Even a wildlife specialist didn’t understand why they were being killed because they are not part of a large population and they are easy to catch and relocate, unlike seagulls.”

The Port Authority has fewer than five of the specialists, who are armed with shotguns filled with birdshot, the source said. The agency didn’t return calls seeking comment on the snowy owls slayings.

Gee, why wouldn’t you return that call? Snowy Owls love airports because of the common resemblance to their arctic tundra habitat featuring a lot of open space with no trees and widespread grasses holding many small mammals like mice and voles, their primary prey. Coastal locations are even better and Boston’s Logan Airport is famous for how many Snowys show up there each year. Mass Audubon works with the progressively-minded Logan staff to trap, examine, band, and release the owls, sometimes with a transmitter, far from the airport. I cannot imagine the Port Authority, an enormous organization with supposed experts, did not know this is how they were dealt with elsewhere from coast to coast as even Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport does the same. I’d surmise they were a bit lazy and murdering them was easier.

Fortunately the NYDN spoke to a couple of our friends, American Birding Association President Jeff Gordon and co-author of the Stokes bird guides, Lillian Stokes:

“I’m loath to second-guess aviation professionals, but clearly snowy owls commonly use airports and don’t seem to be a species that’s involved in dangerous collisions,” Gordon said. “Because of the interest in these birds and their relative rarity, I would hope that all their other options had been eliminated before they got to this point.”

“Isn’t there any other way?” Stokes asked when told the Port Authority’s cross hairs were on the striking owls, which can have wingspans of up to 5 feet. “Just at a time when all these owls are coming down and people are getting to see them.”

A couple months ago I wrote about airports, technology and birds and how we need to make substantive changes for both public safety and conservation of certain species. Protecting aircraft is obviously extremely important, especially at these major hubs, and we all watched the ‘miracle on the Hudson’ after a flock of Canada Geese struck and Captain Sully landed U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. Maintaining airports as the ideal habitat (tightly cut lawns and grasses) for birds like those geese, massive groups of European Starlings and many other ducks in coastal areas is a dangerous business and policy modifications need to be made in order to make the habitat less favorable for flocks of large birds that can bring down planes and more favorable to limited numbers of smaller birds that pose a greatly reduced threat.

Snowy Owls are staggeringly popular even with the average Jane or Joe who are otherwise uninterested in birds or nature. Part of this is due to the allure and mystery of owls, part thanks to Harry Potter, part because of their magnificent adaptions and plumage, and part is something we could call spiritual. It was a 100% guarantee that word of a ‘shoot to kill’ order on them would leak out and that people would be disgusted with the Port Authority. The idiocy that went in to that part of the decision from a public relations standpoint is supreme. By Monday afternoon there were thousands of people signing a petition to stop this killing, contacting the Port Authority, writing to state representatives, senators and officials and even calling Governor Cuomo. All I saw on Twitter was a nonstop barrage of outrage directed at the Port Authority pouring out from a diverse array of people.

By Monday evening the Port Authority caved and released this statement complete with subtext that was both snippy and misguided:

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. Over the past two weeks, five planes at JFK, Newark Liberty and LaGuardia airports were struck by snowy owls that have been migrating to our region in far higher than typical numbers this year.

Great idea! Working with the talented people of NYSDEC is the smartest move, but I cannot help but wonder why we made the leap from noticing the Snowys to shooting them without any intelligent thought in between until all of the uproar (once again, probably laziness with some cheapness and ignorance thrown in). Secondly, we know you are working to protect human life, which is paramount, but you are not humanely controlling bird populations when you take a shotgun to a Snowy Owl, so let’s not pat ourselves on the back too much. Third, if five planes were struck by Snowy Owls in such a short time, why weren’t we hearing about this before and why didn’t you do something to trap and remove them after one or two were hit if you wanted to protect people? And since when do owls strike airplanes? I think it’s the other way around and they’d prefer not to be hit by or sucked into one and die, but that was some cute wording, Port Authority. You’ll note the source from the NYDN piece had mentioned just the one being sucked into a turbine. Fourth, mentioning that the Snowys have been “migrating to our region in far higher than typical numbers this year” is only included as an obvious dig at all of us to say hey, a lot of them showed up and we had no choice but to start shooting them. No, you do not need to educate us on the state of Snowy Owls, Port Authority. You needed to educate yourselves before you acted rashly and inhumanely and we as a community needed to educate you.

Monday turned out to be a terrific success story for folks who made the extra effort to get the word out on this heinous practice, from the sources at the Port Authority to reporters, conservationists, birders, and average citizens who cared enough about these special creatures and did something to try to protect them. Every species and every situation is different, and while they certainly have a difficult job at airports let’s hope more of them learned to lean on others for some advice and help when warranted. Snowy Owls are a symbol of everything that is wondrous and spectacular about our natural world and why it needs our respect, and I hope in the 21st century we can continue using more brainpower and less brute force when our world and theirs literally collide.


Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation & Outreach Coordinator

Photo © Twan Leenders