The influx of snowy owls winging from the Arctic Circle to New York City regional airports this winter will have a warmer welcome from now on, thanks to a change in policy by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Instead of meeting their end at the barrel of a gun, the rare visitors will be trapped and moved to a place where they are less likely to collide with planes.
The Port Authority made the announcement on Monday evening, saying it will be working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to relocate the iconic owls when they are found sitting or perching near the runway: "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 statement continued, "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 change in policy took place after the New York Daily News and other media outlets reported that at least three owls had been shot at JFK International Airport over the weekend. One headline read: "Port Authority 'wildlife specialists' hunt snowy owls at New York City's airports," and was accompanied by a photo of an owl with a target on its beak.
A record uptick in snowy owl sightings in the eastern U.S. began in November, and it's expected that the numbers will only rise as the winter progresses. In an average year, most snowy owls breed and winter near the Arctic Circle, with a small number drifting down to southern Canada and the northern United States in the colder months.
This year, however, is far from average. Hundreds of the great white birds are showing up well below the Canadian border, predominantly in the East, from Newfoundland to as far south as subtropical Bermuda.
These birds of the Arctic tundra favor open habitats, such as fields and sand dunes, where small mammals are likely to be scurrying. Rabbits, mice, and rats are easy prey for the adept hunters that can eat more than 1,600 lemmings in a year. In a pinch, airport runways and nearby stubbly fields of grass might provide similarly open area for hunting rodents.
Snowy owls are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But the Port Authority and other agencies can receive authorization to sidestep the law when protected birds are deemed a threat to planes full of passengers. Airports have been especially sensitive to the risk of aircraft colliding with birds since 2009. That year a U.S. Airways jetliner flew into a flock of Canada geese shortly after takeoff from La Guardia Airport, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing in the icy Hudson River. Fortunately all 155 passengers survived.
With so many snowy owls popping up at New York City regional airports in recent weeks, the birds were reportedly added to the list of species that can be legally shot on the spot.
When news broke of the owl killings at JFK, Devin Heffron, a landscape architect and birder in Middlesex, Massachusetts quickly created a petition on Change.org calling for New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo to ceasefire. The petition noted that wildlife managers working with Boston's Logan International have successfully trapped and released snowy owls for more than 30 years. "The practice of shooting these animals is barbaric and unnecessary," the petition stated. Three thousand people signed on that day, and by evening the Port Authority released a statement saying it would switch to a more humane solution.
Owl advocates are continuing to pressure the Port Authority to keep its word. As of today, 6,000 more people have added their names to the petition, showing that owl supporters— like the owls—are strong in numbers this year.