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Snowy Owls: 26 Captured and Banded at Boston's Logan Airport [INTERVIEW]

Feb 10, 2016 10:46 AM EST
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Snowy owls, like Hedwig in Harry Potter, are tall, grand birds of the Arctic. They have cat-like yellow eyes, are about 21 to 28 inches long, and weigh about 4.5 pounds. And they are among several strikingly white animals that, like snowshoe hares, signal by outer appearance that they herald from a Northern land.

These owls nest in summers on Arctic tundras across the northern hemisphere: in Russia and the rest of Eurasia, Alaska and Canada. The rest of the year, they often show up in flat, windy spots that seem to remind them of the Arctic.

These wide-wingspanned (about five feet) predators are sometimes seen as far from the North as Texas and Florida, and in winter they tend to scatter across the United States' midsection. Starting in 2013, they've shown up in larger numbers farther from the Arctic in winter, and researchers have been keeping an eye on that. The birds have made appearances pretty often in the Boston area and other locations at that latitude, and they especially love the desolate stretches of Boston's Logan Airport.

Norman Smith, director of Massachusetts Audubon's Blue Hills Trailside Museum, has been studying Snowy Owls since 1981. He regularly captures, bands with transmitters, and moves Snowies to areas away from Logan Airport. Along with researchers in Eurasia, Canada, Alaska and other areas, Smith is working to learn more about these majestic owls each year.

1. More snowy owls have been showing up farther from the Arctic Circle since 2013. How many have you captured and fitted with transmitters or otherwise studied at Logan? This year we've captured 28 Snowies, last year 49, and the previous year 120. In that year, in Greater Boston we banded 179 of these owls. In a normal winter, we would catch 6 to 10 Snowy Owls, but this winter and a couple previous have been very different than that.

2. Having studied the owls for this many years, what are your theories on why more of them are flying 3,000 miles and more from the Arctic Circle?

During the winter of 2013-14, there was an incredible lemming breeding time in northern Quebec. Because lemmings are one of the owls' main food sources, they had much to eat. One owl nest was photographed with 70 lemmings in it, still uneaten.That was a normal-sized nest, handled by one or two parent birds. Lots of lemmings means that lots of baby owls will live and grow larger, then fly to Boston or farther, as far-ranging juveniles.

3. So you feel that the owls are in good condition when they reach here in large numbers? We've found that Snowy Owls generally are in good condition when they reach here, and after we put transmitters on them, we learn that they later make it back to the Arctic. When large numbers of the owls are around, many of them are young birds and they're usually in pretty good condition.

4. What first interested you in these owls? In 1966, Garry Van Wart, who was then the director of the Blue Hills Museum, took me to Squantum, Mass., on Marina Bay and we looked at owls with other volunteers. One of the owls regurgitated a pellet and we dissected it. I was captivated by that. I had liked raptors before, but I became very specifically interested in Snowy Owls. Each bird that you catch and band is as exciting as the first one.

5. What is most interesting about these owls? Where they come from, that they're here. It's intriguing that they come from the Arctic; they come for the winter here and then leave. While they're here, we've learned some things but still don't know other things. We have noticed for instance that they are nocturnal and eat waterfowl over the ocean at night. Using night-vision equipment, we've watched the owls leave the airport and return with a duck or a gull that they eat on the level ground at the airport.

6. What else do you like about your work with Snowy Owls? Since two years old, my children started helping me and became my research assistants, and now my grandchildren are helping. Now three generations are working on the Snowy Owl Project that we started in 1981. While my kids have other careers, they still help out with banding and weighing. One of my grandchildren who is five years old helps collect pellets and band the owls. My mission and goal is to get people to see what's in the world around them. Bringing children to nature in the beginning is the way to do that -- instead of only living in the virtual world with computers and iPhones and everything else. We want to get them into the real world, because it is totally different.

Other organizations or collaborations of researchers studying Snowy Owls include:

The Owl Research Institute

Snowy Owl Working Group

Project SNOWstorm

Other coverage:

Northeast States See Large Influx of Snowy Owls this Winter

This snowy owl photobombed a Montreal traffic camera giving the world stunning images of the majestic bird.Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/1.3393343

Posted by CBC News on Thursday, January 7, 2016

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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