When Owls and Airplanes Don’t Mix

I was sickened to hear that three Snowy Owls were purposely shot and killed at New York City’s JFK Airport this past weekend. Why? Even though they are protected from trapping and shooting (according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, anyway), they were added to the Port Authority’s list of birds it may kill to protect airplanes from bird strikes after one of them apparently resting (the article uses the term “nesting”) on top of a taxiway sign on a runway got sucked into an airplane turbine. Other birds that have been added to the “kill list” include Canada Geese, Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, Rock Pigeons, American Crows, Double-crested Cormorants (huh?) and Mute Swans. Most of these birds gather together in huge flocks – sometimes consisting of hundreds of thousands of individuals – in the winter and during migration, and are considered pests as a result of the noise and the mess they leave behind. Snowy Owls, on the other hand, usually appear in singly or in small groups, and spend most of their time sitting still, whether on a sign, a rooftop, a treetop or the ground. They blend in so well with the winter landscape that most of the time you wouldn’t even notice if one was around.

Snowy Owl
Ottawa, 2006

This is turning out to be another irruption year, with hundreds of these beautiful white owls flying south in search of a safe, food-rich place to spend the winter. Snowy Owls depend on birds and small mammals to survive, in particular rabbits, hares, squirrels, weasels, mice and voles. As a result, Snowy Owls prefer large, open treeless places in which to hunt. With so many owls moving south again this winter, it is clear that there isn’t enough food up north for all of them. They are going to find it difficult enough to survive as it is without being placed on the Port Authority’s “kill list”, which even wildlife experts don’t understand as the owls “are not part of a large population and they are easy to catch and relocate, unlike seagulls.”

Logan Airport in Massachusetts does exactly that – instead of killing these majestic northern visitors, they capture and relocate them to a safer place. Not only that, but Logan Airport even attaches transmitters to the healthiest birds, helping to contribute to our scientific knowledge about these birds’ movements in irruption years. So if Logan Airport has been able to develop a much more humane and enlightened response to this issue, why can’t the New York Port Authority take a page out of their book instead of condemning the owls to death? The answer: one owl got sucked into an airplane turbine, and someone overreacted.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Many people are sickened and concerned by the way the Port Authority is handling this situation. A petition is taking off on Change.org, asking the Governor to stop shooting the owls and to rethink their approach to Snowy Owls and other birds that visit Metro-Area airports. I urge you to sign and share it with as many of your Facebook friends as you can.

If you have a twitter account, please send a tweet to @NYGovCuomo asking him to follow the lead set by Boston and #saveoursnowyowlsNYC.

If you live in New York State, you may also wish to mail, email, or telephone Governor Cuomo and share your concerns.

When it comes to protecting our wildlife, every voice matters.

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UPDATE: WOW! As I was writing this the Port Authority announced that it is working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation in order to relocate snowy owls and to “strike a balance in humanely controlling bird populations at and around the agency’s airports”. What an awesome job by everyone who voiced their concerns!

9 thoughts on “When Owls and Airplanes Don’t Mix

  1. I think it was last year, during that irruption of Snowy Owls, that Hawaii received its first ever northern visitor. That owl, having flown countless thousands of kilometers and crossing the largest ocean on the planet, met a similar fate almost immediately, because apparently the owl was roosting close to a runway and the “conservation” officers overreacted.

    Ironic that we think of ourselves as the most intelligent species on Earth…

    • Hey Pat,

      I think it has more to do with thinking we’re the most important species on earth….I’m pretty sure that with shows like “Honey Boo Boo” on the TV that we can no longer claim to be the most intelligent.

      I absolutely hate it when people kill wildlife just because there is a SLIGHT chance that it may cause harm to humans. I don’t know if you heard about the elk found in Ottawa in the fall, hanging out near the Bayview/O-Train station….somehow this wild elk, which for all I know is the first one ever seen in Ottawa, ended up almost all the way downtown and the police shot it because they couldn’t tranquilize it and it was getting close to rush hour. Typical Ottawa reaction. Too bad the city isn’t as willing to reconsider their wildlife strategy as the NY Port Authority.

    • Thanks Jason! I think that it really shows the commitment of birders & other wildlife lovers how quickly the petition grew. It now has 3977 signatures; when I signed it there were barely 100!

  2. I don’t like to see reports of this sort of thing, and wish they would call in the wildlife experts to trap the animals before considering shooting. If you can kill it with a bullet, you can tranquilize it with a dart!

    • Hi Sue,

      Unfortunately it was a “wildlife specialist” who killed the owls, and the Port Authority has a couple of them, all armed with shotguns. I suspect they were just following orders, given the quote in the story that “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.”

      It is the Port Authority that needed to reconsider its strategy in dealing with the owls, and they did…too late for the three birds that were killed over the weekend, but a step in the right direction nonetheless.

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