When birds and airplanes meet in airport airspace, the outcome isn’t good for either of them, so the staff at Wittman Regional Airport keeps a sharp eye out for newcomers, like two snowy owls that arrived just before Christmas.
When dealing with wildlife, said Chris Hallstrand, Wittman’s manager of operations, the first call is to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Given the threat to aviation safety, the DNR gives any airport two options.
Hallstrand and Airport Director Peter Moll quickly decided on the second. They called Gene Jacobs of Raptor Services to capture and relocate the birds. Using a lure and remote-controlled net, Jacobs and his intern, Oshkosh resident Jen Rothe, caught the adult females on successive days and found them new homes well away from any airport.
The border between Wisconsin and Michigan is the southern edge of the snowy owl’s range, which covers most of Canada and reaches into Alaska. Lemmings and other small mammals are its primary prey. In years when their numbers plummet, the owls travel south until they find a reliable source of food.
They like airports because the flat, treeless tundra of their northern homeland. Diurnal hunters, during the day they look for their next meal from low perches, Jacobs said, because that’s all they have in their normal hunting ground. At an airport, the signs identifying runways and taxiways do nicely.
Patience is key in capturing the birds, said Jacobs (right, above). Working one bird at a time, they only had to wait a couple of hours for each owl to move on the lure. What most surprised Hallstrand (above, left) is how calm the wild birds were after they were captured.
Like most raptors, powerful talons are their primary weapon, said Jacobs, so like snakes, how one holds them matters. “I don’t know if birds have ankles,” said Hallstrand, but that’s where Jacobs and Rothe held the birds, and it calmed them right down, and Rothe held each bird in her lap during the drive to its new winter hunting grounds.