NEW YORK — First terrapins. Now snowy owls. Humans are not the only species flocking to airports this holiday season.
At least five times in the past few weeks, airliners at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports have been hit by the fluffy owls, which airport and National Audubon Society officials agree are migrating south in far higher numbers than normal.
One was even seen in Bermuda recently, said Glenn Phillips, executive director of New York City Audubon. Phillips speculates that it’s an owl overflow from a population boom back home, on the edges of the Arctic Circle.
The question facing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages the airports, is how best to control the golden-eyed white creatures: by culling or by capturing.
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Wildlife specialists working with the authority reportedly shot three snowy owls dead at JFK on Dec. 7 and added snowy owls to a “kill list” of species targeted for elimination after one nesting atop a runway sign was sucked into an airplane turbine.
Responding to the accusations, the authority said it was working with environmental experts “to move immediately toward implementing a program to trap and relocate snowy owls that pose a threat to aircraft.”
The authority, which previously came under fire from animal-welfare groups for killing Canada geese that frequent airport environs, did not respond when asked whether it had killed snowy owls. Nor did it disclose details of the owl-airplane strikes, saying it did not know which airlines were involved. Most bird and other wildlife strikes are not reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) because few result in major damage or injuries.
But bird strikes are a hot-button issue in New York, a city haunted by the 2009 crash of US Airways Flight 1549 after birds crippled its engines. No one died as Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger guided the Airbus A320 to a landing in the Hudson River minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia, but the incident underscored the problem of having major airports next to wetlands teeming with birds and other wildlife.
Wildlife advocates say it also led the port authority to shoot first and consider other options later to tackle bird problems that are bound to resurface, given the airports’ proximity to bird populations. That’s especially true for John F. Kennedy International Airport, which abuts the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, home to gulls, reptiles, small mammals and amphibians.
“There needs to be some long-term creative solutions,” said Phillips, noting that Boston’s Logan International Airport employs wildlife experts to capture, tag and release snowy owls that come too close.
At any given time, the creatures living in Jamaica Bay’s marshes can wander onto runways or fly into airspace, as occurred four times in June when diamondback terrapins entered a JFK runway in search of a nesting spot.
Most wildlife encounters involve birds. Although few result in casualties or crashes, they can cause extensive aircraft damage. In December 2012, an Air Wisconsin Airlines jet on approach to LaGuardia encountered “multiple bird strikes” from snow geese at an elevation of about 7,000 feet. The plane landed safely but bore “substantial” damage, according to the incident report, and was out of service for 38 days.
This is the second time since 2011 that there have been more snowy owls than usual in the Lower 48 states. Phillips said the migration is probably the result of a population boom in the far north, leading to increased competition for the owls’ main food source, rodents called lemmings. Some birds would have been squeezed out of the area, leading to the New York area sightings.
Even so, the number of snowy owls in the region is probably in the dozens, not the hundreds, Phillips said. Snowy owls don’t move in flocks and are relatively lightweight, as evidenced by the ease with which the fictional character Harry Potter kept his pet snowy owl, Hedwig, perched on his arm.
“They often seem bigger than they really are,” Phillips said, adding that they are mostly feathers.
Those qualities make the owl less of a risk to aircraft than heavier birds such as cormorants, or birds that fly in large flocks.
Phillips gave JFK credit for trying to keep birds away from the airport but said it will be difficult to repel snowy owls. That’s because the measures that discourage other birds, such as cutting away foliage and mowing lawns, remind snowy owls of the tundra back home.
“They do a lot to deter birds,” he said. “But the things that make it unattractive to other birds make it absolutely lovely to snowy owls.”