SNOWY OWLS AND AIRPORTS

'Snowy' Owl at "Jamaica Bay" Wildlife Refuge. Photo: François Portmann
The iconic Snowy Owl is a true bird of the Great North. This powerful raptor breeds on the high Arctic tundra, in large part above the Arctic Circle. In the wintertime, the species ranges south across the wide expanse of Canada and the northern U.S. Most years, just a few Snowy Owls visit New York City and surrounding areas, observed only by the most determined winter birders. 
 
But like many northern species, such as “winter finches,” Snowy Owls occasionally come southwards in great waves, known as "irruptions," across the United States. Big irruption years are thought to be tied to a scarcity of food resources in the species' northern range, as well as to a high number of successful Snowy Owl fledglings in a particular year. When populations of rodents like lemmings and voles, the owls’ primary prey, are high during the nesting season, Snowy Owls tend to fledge a lot of young. In such "bumper crop" years, many young owls may need to wander far south to find enough to eat. 
 
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When they arrive in our area, Snowy Owls tend to visit open, tundra-like habitats similar to their northern breeding territory. Airports must seem like ideal hunting grounds to them—and here, they can run into trouble. In the winter of 2013-2014, a spectacular irruption occurred across North America: Snowy Owls came south in numbers not seen in a generation, and were observed as far south as Florida and Bermuda. 
 
In New York City, excitement among birders was soon tempered by reports of the shooting of Snowy Owls at John F. Kennedy Airport as a safety measure. A public outcry, and some fast advocacy footwork, followed: Audubon New York, NYC Audubon, and other local conservation organizations immediately reached out to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Governor’s Office to urge the Port Authority to employ non-lethal methods of control and relocation in lieu of culling.

A banded Snowy Owl is released, January 2014. Photo: NYC Audubon/Port Authority of NY & NJ "}" data-trix-content-type="undefined" class="attachment attachment--content"> A banded Snowy Owl is released, January 2014. Photo: NYC Audubon/Port Authority of NY & NJ

Thanks to these advocacy efforts, and to thousands of concerned people who contacted the Port Authority and signed petitions to protest the Snowy Owl cullings, the Port Authority agreed to immediately implement a trap and relocate program at JFK and LaGuardia Airports, similar to an effective program employed at Boston's Logan Airport.

Since that time, NYC Audubon has assisted in several “trap, band, and release” solutions for Snowy Owls visiting our airports. Though it may not be necessary every year, the precedent of this program will hopefully allow swifter humane intervention when future Snowy Owl irruptions occur.

If you go to look for Snowy Owls, please be considerate of these visitors to our area and show them respect by keeping your distance and avoiding disturbing them. Visit our Ethics of Birding page to learn more about considerate owl birding.