An unusually large influx of snowy owls in the Northeast this winter might be exciting birdwatchers, but their attraction to airports has led to them finding themselves in the crosshairs.
Although no one is quite sure why the the owls who hail from the Arctic tundra are appearing in such large numbers, their draw to airports that resemble their preferred open habitat has led to safety concerns among aviation officials and the quick addition of snowy owls to the list of birds that airports can legally kill, complete with orders to shoot them on sight.
According to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, five planes from John F. Kennedy International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and LaGuardia Airport were struck by snowy owls over the last two weeks.
Media reports about snowy owls being added to the kill list, which was followed by the news of three being shot at JFK led to outcry from the public and organizations, including Friends of Animals (FoA), Goose Watch NYC, Audubon New York and New York City Audubon, among others. A Care2 petition urging the Port Authority to cease fire gathered more than 63,000 signatures.
Opponents argued that not only is killing birds cruel, but it doesn’t address the problem of them being attracted to airports, or provide any sort of long-term solution. The Port Authority was urged to follow the lead of other airports that have taken steps to avoid killing birds in the name of safety, including Boston’s Logan International Airport, which has moved more than 500 snowy owls since relocation efforts began decades ago, according to the Boston Globe.
Not only does Logan trap and release birds unharmed, but it also uses other deterrents including the use of sound canons, landscaping to make the area undesirable to birds and lacing the grass with a bacteria that gives birds indigestion.
Fortunately for the owls, public pressure seems to have paid off. Following media reports and objections to its plans, the Port Authority quickly backtracked and issued a statement saying that it will stop killing owls and adopt non-lethal alternatives.
“The Port Authority is working with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to move immediately toward implementing a program to trap and relocate snowy owls that pose a threat to aircraft at JFK and LaGuardia airports. The Port Authority’s goal is to strike a balance in humanely controlling bird populations at and around the agency’s airports to safeguard passengers on thousands of aircrafts each day.”
The announcement came as a relief to many, but FoA is still planning on suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Division, as well as the directors of these agencies, because the agencies chose to ignore federal law protecting owls under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which requires them to fully consider and disclose all of the options available before they can justify killing animals and move forward with a lethal approach.
“What happened to the snowy owls last weekend at JFK, and what is likely happening to many other birds near airports that can be relocated instead of shot, is not only a real-world travesty, it is a legal failure,” said Michael Harris, director of the FoA’s Wildlife Law Program.
Hopefully as more owls continue to move in this winter, the Port Authority will keep its word and other airports will take note of the humane options that are available to keep all airborne travelers alive and safe.
A giant thanks to all our Care2 members who stepped up and helped to end this needless killing by signing the petition and making a difference.
Photo credit: Thinkstock