Snowy owls: A curiosity in cities and a problem for airplanes


The snowy owl, perched in McPherson Square on Wednesday. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Snowy owls have been seen at airports and state parks up and down the East Coast, with sightings from Massachusetts to Florida, as well as in the Dakotas and Arkansas. On a bitterly cold Wednesday, one was spotted in downtown Washington, perched atop an awning facing McPherson Square.

When seen far from the Arctic tundra where they breed, these owls are curiosities. They’re unusual enough to make hurried rush-hour commuters pause and snap photos. But officials at airports warn that for planes, these owls actually pose a problem.

One such owl seen at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport was captured in late December, airport officials said earlier this month.

It was spotted near one of the airport’s runways, so a technician with the Agriculture Department’s Wildlife Services program set a trap for the owl on Dec. 27. The owl was captured that night and moved to an area away from the airport the following day, according to Jonathan Dean, a spokesman for BWI.

Snowy owls pose a threat to planes because of their size, mass and low-flying habits, according to BWI officials. (It should be noted, of course, that planes aren’t exactly an avian creature’s best friend.) The airport has a program in place to help keep birds away from planes, including using propane cannons that make loud noises to scare birds and handheld devices that make noises or flash lights.

“Airlines and airports work hard to help prevent the hazards related to bird strikes,” Paul J. Wiedefeld, chief executive of BWI, said in a statement earlier this month about the captured owl. “At BWI Marshall, we take a number of proactive measures to make aviation safer while protecting wildlife.”

There are two Wildlife Services employees in place at BWI to help the airport with this effort. The Wildlife Services program is the subject of a petition and queries from lawmakers, and in response to questions from a reporter last year, a spokeswoman specifically cited its efforts at airports as an example of how it works to protect human beings.

“For example, we work with the aviation community to protect the public by reducing wildlife hazards at more than 800 airports around the country,” spokeswoman Lyndsay Cole said in an e-mail at the time to The Post’s Darryl Fears.

Bird strikes in general remain a danger for planes, something famously illustrated when a US Airways flight had to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2009 after a flock of geese disabled its engines. (The pilot and some passengers just celebrated the fifth anniversary of the “miracle on the Hudson.”)

There were 11,000 animal strikes at 650 airports last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and about 142,000 strikes between 1990 and 2013. Most of the bird strikes occur as the planes are landing. (While the overwhelming majority of these strikes involve birds, the occasional deer, bat or alligator are also hit.)

As snow owl sightings become (relatively) more frequent in the United States, issues near airports are also increasing. BWI wasn’t alone in seeing an owl near its busy airspace. At least five planes at the New York area airports — John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty — were hit by these owls over a two-week stretch spanning November and December, the New York & New Jersey Port Authority reported. The Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., has seen what a spokeswoman called an “unprecedented” surge in the number of owls seen there.

The snowy owl spotted near McPherson Square — and first reported by DCist – drew a lot of attention on Wednesday afternoon as it perched on an awning and moved to a tree in the square. By Thursday morning, though, it appeared to have moved on (or at least your faithful owl correspondent couldn’t find it).

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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