Snowy owls at risk after mistaking airports for the tundra

It’s not just holiday travellers flocking to airports this time of year. Arctic snowy owls are making themselves at home at John F. Kennedy, Newark and LaGuardia airports, mistaking the runways for safe habitat. 

Usually, the birds spend winter in the arctic tundra, Northern Canada, or Alaska. But this year, many of the birds have flown down south, residing in the northeastern United States. Some birds were even spotted in Tennessee. 

According to Kevin McGowan, a biologist and ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, many of the owls see the airport’s open space and confuse it for their home in the arctic tundra.

Called an irruption, bird experts say that this year’s migration to areas outside of their normal range is the largest in two decades, meaning the number of snowy owls currently making the airports their temporary home is unprecedented.

But the Port Authority doesn’t want the snowy owls to get too comfortable. The birds, which can weigh up to eight pounds, are causing problems at the airports.

A statement from the agency said that over a two-week period, five planes at JFK, Newark Liberty, and LaGuardia airports were struck by snowy owls. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there have been more than 100 wildlife strikes at JFK and 66 strikes at LaGuardia. In 2009, a US Airways Flight collided with a flight of geese and lost engine power, causing the plan to splash-down in the Hudson River.

Earlier this month, three owls were shot and killed at John F. Kennedy Airport after the Port Authority added snowy owls to its “kill list.” But after public outcry, the agency readjusted its protocol, instead initiating a program to trap and relocate the birds.

Reminiscent of the tundra, the airports offer an attractive base for the owls with their open, treeless areas of land. And many of the airports are surrounded by marshlands, which means the birds can hunt rodents and waterfowl with ease. 

While it’s not unheard of for snowy owls to migrate farther south than usual during the winter months, this year’s magnitude indicates the current conditions in the arctic.

McGowan says it could be due to a shortage of lemmings, the owls’ main source of food, or there could be larger population of young owls flying south to find their own land. 

“Either [there’s] not enough food in the wild, or plenty of it. It’s hard to know whether there’s a problem or not,” McGowan told the National Geographic.