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by Margaret Hartley

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An abundance of snowy owls

By Margaret Hartley
Monday, December 16, 2013

Seems everyone is talking about snowy owls. The tundra dwellers always come south in the winter, sometimes just into southern Canada and the northern U.S., including the Adirondacks, and sometimes much farther south.

They are our largest owl, white with black bars and a 5-foot wingspan. Unlike a lot of owls, they are active in daytime. This is probably because their primary home is the Arctic Circle, where it’s daylight round the clock for parts of the year.

We’ll often see one in the wintertime, hanging out on a tree branch near a clearing for a few days before moving on. They eat mostly rodents and small birds, but they can eat larger things too — ducks and rabbits — which makes us fear for our chickens when one is hanging around.

The birds are known for what’s called irruptions — every four to five years there’s a winter breakthrough where the owls, particularly the young males, head farther south than is typical, in larger numbers than typical.

We’re having a major one right now. This year, snowy owls have been spotted at marinas in Chicago and throughout the Great Lakes region. There are more reports than usual in New York and New England, including multiple birds in New York City. They’ve even been spotted in North Carolina and Bermuda.

The odd thing about this irruption is that it comes just two years after the last.

Down in New York City, the Port Authority drew ire last week after announcing a kill order for the owls at area airports. That order was quickly protested and quickly lifted, and the airports are now using methods long in use at Boston’s Logan International Airport, primarily trap and release.

Snowy owls seem to like airports, and the theory is that the wide expanses remind them of their tundra homes and offer good hunting grounds for the sharp-eyed birds.

Logan airport officials report they are seeing more snowy owls than usual this year, but add that they’ve been dealing with the issue for decades.

Mass Audubon says Logan has the largest concentration of snowy owls in the northeastern United States, with the bird generally hanging out at the airport between early November and early April. That’s both good and bad, Mass Audubon reports:

“The airport owls help by scaring away other birds that might endanger aircraft. Unfortunately, they are large enough to pose a threat themselves.” That’s where the trap and release program comes into play.

Since 1997, Mass Audubon’s Norman Smith has been attaching bands and transmitters to Logan’s snowy owls to track and study them. (You can follow some of them at www.massaudubon.org.)

At Logan, more than 500 snowy owls have been caught and released over the years, according to The Boston Globe, which also described some of the other ways the airport discourages the birds: “Sound cannons have been installed at the birds’ preferred resting spots, and staff sometimes fire pistols with blanks to shoo them away. The grassy fields are landscaped to reduce puddles that attract smaller birds and rodents, and the grass is laced with a bacteria that causes indigestion in birds.”

More than 20 snowy owls have been caught at Logan so far this fall — a pace that makes it likely this year could surpass Logan’s top owl-capture season of 43.

Why are there so many snowy owls this year? According to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, it could be a result of changes in the Arctic climate causing less food for the owls at home, where their preferred dinner is lemming.

Or it could be something else — a higher number of owls born, good hunting in the south. Experts at the Cornell lab say it’s too early to tell right now.

But they agree the sightings are nice for nature watchers.

Just make sure your chickens are safe.

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Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Contact mhartley@dailygazette.net or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter.

 

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