NEWS-_Snowy_OwlsIt’s not every day that a casual walk along Duxbury Beach can lead to a snowy owl sighting, but this year, it pretty much is.

Fifty snowy owls have been released at Duxbury Beach so far this winter and have grown some (temporary) roots around town. The owls have been released in Duxbury as part of Mass Audubon’s partnership with Logan Airport, which seeks to live-trap the owls at the airport to prevent them from flying into airplanes.


Norman Smith, Director of Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum, has been working on the Snowy Owl Project since 1981,studying the owls and their migratory patterns from the arctic to points south. Through the project, Smith fostered a relationship with Massport, the public authority that develops and manages Massachusetts airports, to trap snowy owls at Logan Airport.

“We don’t want any birds being killed by planes and they don’t want any airplanes to be compromised by birds flying in the area,” Smith said.

Smith recalled an accident at Logan in 1960, when an Eastern Air Lines flight crashed on takeoff and 62 out of 72 passengers on board were killed. Six seconds after liftoff, the plane encountered a flock of starlings, medium- sized birds. Investigators determined the engines had each ingested at least one bird and engine No. 1 ingested at least eight birds.

“That was the worst aircraft accident that was caused by birds,” Smith said. “It is because of that accident that we are more aware of the danger birds create by living at the airport and why we work to relocate them.”

Early in the season, usually from around the first week of November until the third week in January, the owls are trapped at the airport and transported to Duxbury for release. The birds are caged individually and are weighed and measured. A band is placed on one leg so they can be properly identified if they show up in another location. Smith said the owls are released in Duxbury because it is a coastal location that allows them to easily find food before migrating further south. From Duxbury, some owls have been recorded as traveling as far south as North Carolina and Florida and one owl was recorded in Bermuda.

The 2013-14 winter season marks a personal record for Smith, as 50 is the highest number of owls he has ever caught, followed by 43 in the winter of 1986-87. An average winter at Logan yields about six catches for Smith and the Snowy Owl Project, so the big question this year is why so many?

Smith said a common misconception is that more owls travel south from the artctic when there is not enough food there. However, researchers have discovered that, in years when there is an exceptionally high number of owls, the influx is due to an abundance of food in the arctic, which makes it easier to produce more owls. Data show that when there are lots of lemmings, the snowy owl's primary source of food, in the arctic, there are more hatchlings that migrate south. While some stay in Duxbury, many continue south. Starting at the end of January, the owls will be released on Plum Island, because it is likely their migrations will start bringing them north again to spend the summer in the arctice. 

In 1999, the Snowy Owl Project started putting satellite transmitters on the relocated owls to track their migration patterns and see how many made it back north. Out of 12 transmitters that first year, three were shot in Massachusetts before they were able to migrate, but the rest made it back to the arctic. With the transmitters, the same owls have been recorded as returning to Logan and Duxbury five, 10, even 16 years after their first capture. One owl that had been tagged was recorded as having migrated back north for the summer and flew back to Logan, having traveled over 7,000 miles since it’s original release.

“This has basically been a long-term research project to learn what they do and how they do it,” Smith said. “A lot of speculation has surrounded the theory that they are starving to death and that’s why they don’t make it back. We’ve found 75-80 percent die in the first year because they are not only inexperienced hunters, but they have been hit by planes, electrocuted, poisoned or have broken limbs that prevent them from flying.”

This year, many Duxbury residents have noticed the abundance of snowy owls in their yards and around town. Smith said he frequently receives calls from concerned observers who worry that an owl that is perched quietly on a fence is in danger. Smith said the snowy owls are nocturnal hunters when they migrate south, which means they are resting during the day. They leave one eye slightly open and never fully go to sleep so that they may be aware of ap- proaching predators.

“There are no trees in the arctic, so if they were fully roosting on the ground they would get scooped up by a fox or another predator,” he said. “It is well-known that in the Arctic the snowy owls are daytime hunters; it is daytime in the arctic for nearly two months during the summer and if they waited for night time they’d get quite hungry. But down south, they are able to continue hunting at night.”

The most common question Smith said he gets asked is how to know when curious bird watchers are stressing out the owls. His advice is to slowly approach the owl, but to pay attention to its body language.

“Good owl-watching etiquette and protocol is to notice if their eyes are open and they are staring at you, if they are stretching their wings and legs and if their feathers are fluffed,” Smith said. “If you approach and see them get active, turn around and leave. By disturbing them you are preventing them from being able to hunt. Please, observe from a distance.”