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Why airports look like home to snowy owls

Hundreds of snowy owls have descended on the Great Lakes and Northeast as part of this year's "irruption."

Every year, some snowy owls make their way south from their Arctic homeland in search of food, and some of us here in the Great Lakes region have been lucky enough to spot these magnificent birds on tree branches, or poles, or … near airports.

Airports have wide open treeless spaces, and can look a lot like home to snowy owls. And for wildlife specialists who work at airports from the Great Lakes to the Northeast, this has been a busy winter.

Eight owls trapped in one week at DTW

During Christmas week alone, Detroit Metro Airport’s Wildlife Hazard Management Program trapped and relocated eight snowy owls.

“They will be moved to a distance greater than 50 miles away from the airport, so that hopefully it doesn't become a future problem,” says airport spokesman Brian Lassaline.

Birds and airplanes don’t mix, and getting birds to move along so they don’t nest near aircraft is something airport officials invest a good deal of time and money into.

“Wildlife strikes on airplanes is a significant hazard, both money and people’s lives, and so it’s something that must be dealt with,” says Kevin McGowan with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, adding that many birds can be scared off using tactics like loud noises.

"They're a creature from another world that occasionally we get the good fortune to see."

“The problem with snowy owls is they don’t scare very easily. It just doesn’t work.”

One airport learned that lesson this fall, and paid a public relations price when it decided to deal with the birds another way. Wildlife officials at Kennedy Airport shot three of the owls, leading to a public outcry and a lawsuit. Officials with the Port Authority, which runs the airport, say they’ve halted the practice and are now trapping and relocating the birds.

Word of the day: “irruption”

So why the influx of snowy owls this year? Bird experts aren’t sure. But there is a word for it: “irruption.”

Kevin McGowan from Cornell says it could be a boom year for baby snowy owls, or there isn’t enough food in the Arctic -- or it could be a combination of the two. But one thing’s for sure:

"This year a whole bunch of them came in to the Great Lakes region latitude, and they just kept coming, and there just hundreds and hundreds of these things."

(Click here to see an interactive map of snowy owl sightings near you)

“It’s very exciting for local bird watchers. They are really, really fantastic animals,” says McGowan. “They’re a creature from another world that occasionally we get the good fortune to see.”

A hoot in the woods

Credit Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

There’s something about owls that even non-birders love. Maybe it’s their large eyes, or the fact that they’re mostly night creatures (the snowy owl, being a creature of the Arctic, hunts during the day).

My daughters love books about owls, and one of our favorites is "Owl Moon" by Jane Yolen, about a girl whose dad takes her out “owling” one winter night.

So when I saw that the state was putting on a series of “owl walks” this winter, I had to go. I took along my tape recorder. You can listen to a great horned owl call here:

And you can hear our group's try at the call here:

We were not lucky enough to spot any owls that night. But if you’re out near some wide open spaces this winter – near an airport, or a farm field – look up. Your chances are better this year than most to see a snowy owl hunting for some food.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.
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