Transportation
6:00 am
Thu January 23, 2014

Grand Rapids airport faces 'unprecedented' influx of snowy owls

Snowy owls have been flocking to Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids this winter.

“It’s unprecedented. We have three to four times the activity than we’ve ever had in the past,” said Tara Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the Ford Airport.

Airport staff had to shoot nine owls this season. That’s compared to only four in the past four years combined.

“Our first line of defense is to always use non-lethal methods,” Hernandez said, “Because of the influx of snowy owls, it has just been something that we weren’t prepared for. We didn’t know we were going to have this baby boom, I guess you could call it, of owls breeding and then traveling down to Michigan.”

Usually the airport hires someone with the U.S. Department of Agriculture  to set live traps once a month to capture and release the birds 50 miles away from the area. Now, she says the trappers will be there more frequently.

The birds pose a danger to people when they fly into planes.

“We have staff members that love these birds and no one wants to be caught in a situation when you’re deciding between air safety and bird safety, but when it comes down to it, public safety is No. 1,” she said.

Three years ago, a snowy owl collided with an Airbus jet at Ford Airport, causing $310,000 in damage.

“That’s a really lucky situation that it just caused damage to an engine and lives were not lost,” she said.

But the snowy owls aren’t just flocking to the Ford airport. Detroit and Willow Run airports have captured and released 17 snowy owls since December. They’ve had six “strikes” with planes since 2003, according to an airport spokesman. He said they’ve not had to shoot any owls.

Flint's Bishop Airport seems to be bucking the trend; a spokesman there reports only one snowy owl has been captured this season. Lansing's Capital City Airport didn't respond to Michigan Radio's requests for a snowy owl count.

Airports are attractive hunting grounds to snowy owls in the winter because they look like the arctic areas they typically call home. Michigan Radio’s The Environment Report looked at this issue earlier this month.