Wildlife: Project SNOWstorm for the birds

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In December, I described an invasion of snowy owls from the arctic to temperate latitudes. Hundreds of these impressive white birds have been reported from the East Coast to Minnesota. I suspect that never have so many birders seen a rare life bird in such a short time span.

Because snowy owls normally live on the open arctic tundra, they seek similar habitats when they wander south. Many make themselves at home at airports, farmlands, sandy beaches, ice floes and even urban parking lots.

Airports can be a problem because aircraft can hit and kill snowy owls, but more importantly, a single owl can take down a plane. So as this snowy owl irruption became evident, conservationists worked to capture and relocate snowy owls away from airports. One, for example, has been trapped and relocated about 40 miles from Pittsburgh International Airport.

Conservationists also realized that snowy owl irruptions of this magnitude occur perhaps once in a lifetime, so a team of experienced owl researchers quickly assembled to capture, tag and monitor as many snowy owls as possible. Thus Project SNOWstorm was born. Using telemetry, banding and other research tools, biologists are trying to answer some of the questions that surround the biology of snowy owls.

Capturing and equipping owls with telemetry devices and then monitoring them are time-consuming, expensive jobs. Each transmitter costs about $3,000.

To date, snowy owls have been captured and banded in many states, and 10 have been equipped with transmitters. One nicknamed Philly, for example, was trapped and tagged at the Philadelphia International Airport, and two more were tagged near Erie.

Thanks to signals sent by the transmitters, owl movements can be tracked and mapped. For example, an owl captured in Maryland moved 150 miles to various spots along the New Jersey shore where waterfowl are easy prey. And Philly, captured Jan. 9, was relocated 40 miles west of the Philadelphia airport to farmland in Lancaster County. Three days later, Philly returned to the airport. Sadly, he was killed in a collision with a cargo plane on Jan. 29.

For more information, visit www.projectsnowstorm.org. Instructions for making tax-deductible contributions to Project SNOWstorm can be found on the website.

Biologist, author, and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 8-10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) and online at www.wvly.net. He can be reached at www.drshalaway.com, sshalaway@aol.com and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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