Moving Snowy Owls to Safer Hunting Grounds

A Banded Snowy Owl Is Released on January 28, 2014. Photo © NYC Audubon

NYC Audubon’s Director of Conservation and Science Susan Elbin relates a recent, rare encounter at John F. Kennedy Airport: 


I can’t begin to describe the excitement I felt last Tuesday as I was driving to JFK airport. I was not going to JFK to catch a plane bound for some tropical island. No—this was so much better than that. I was going to help my colleagues band and release a snowy owl that had been trapped Monday night as part of a new relocation program at our local airports.


This past December, the Port Authority of NY and NJ changed its policy on dealing with snowy owls on runways at JFK, La Guardia, and Newark airports. The old policy was to either chase the birds away, or if they didn’t fly off, shoot them. After several snowy owl shootings at JFK airport were reported in the local press in early December, huge public outcry and pressure from New York City Audubon and Audubon New York ensued—and the policy was changed. Now the owls are being given a second chance—or as many chances as it takes—to leave the airports and continue on their way. This change in policy couldn’t have come at a better time. This winter we are experiencing an unprecedented number of snowy owls in our area—an irruption or shift in typical wintering grounds. Typically wintering in the northern US and southern Canada, some snowy owls have even been seen in Washington, DC, Florida, and Bermuda this year.


Several governmental agencies and NYC Audubon are working together to trap, band, and relocate the birds away from our local airports. Last Tuesday’s bird, a hatching year male, was the first one caught at JFK.

Every snowy owl that is captured and relocated is banded with a US Geological Survey leg band before it is released. In order to band a bird, one must have a banding license issued by the federal government. That’s where I come into play: as a master bander, I am on call to help with the banding if the state agency biologist is not available.


There were five of us in the room where the snowy owl was being held for banding. We were calm and the bird was mellow as he looked at us with big yellow eyes. His legs seemed to be fatter than they really were because they were covered with feathers. We were careful with the band, to not catch any feathers. And now he is registered with the USGS Bird Banding Lab. A second owl was caught, banded, and relocated four days later.


Just imagine: These magnificent birds hatched in the Arctic. We’re not exactly sure why all these snowy owls are being seen right now. A good supply of food (lemmings) during last year’s breeding season, an insufficient supply of food to support the young of the year, and climate change have all been suggested as explanations of the birds’ southward progression this winter. For whatever reason, he was in New York City. I can only describe it as awesome to be part of the solution to help snowy owls get safely away from our airports.




Click here to see an ebird map of recent snowy owls sightings in North America.

















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